22 March 2016: Brussels attacks call for integration through education

Author: Hans Vossensteyn

Tuesday 22 March 2016, Motel One in the centre of Brussels, Rue Royale, 2 km from metro station Maelbeek. I get up at 07:00 and open my laptop to prepare for a project meeting with DG Education and Culture of the European Commission at 11:00 on the Relevance of Higher Education for Society. At 8:00 I look out of my window. The armed soldiers arrive to guard one of the EU buildings behind the hotel, business as usual.  Around 8:30 I go downstairs to have breakfast. All looks normal, many people selecting their food and drinks, chatting in various languages, laughing, preparing their meetings, watching the news on their phones: it is just a normal day…. Returning to my room I vaguely hear a booming sound, probably a neighbour closing the door a bit too strongly. My phone rings. Our Flemish project partner calls to hear if it is safe to come to Brussels. “Why not?” “There has just been a terrorist attack on Brussels Airport Zaventem.” I look out of the window, see more soldiers walking up and down the street behind the hotel. Sirens further away in the city. “Yes all looks fine here, no panic at all in the hotel”.

Gradually many sms, emails and WhatsApp messages come in: “yes I am fine …”. My television doesn’t work and please let me concentrate on my project meeting: “how can higher education contribute to positive and active citizenship?” At 10:10 I am in the lobby to check out. I meet my German colleague who tells about the blast at Maelbeek metro station… “so that is what I heard earlier …”. In front of the hotel there is a continuous stream of sirens: police cars, ambulances, security vehicles, all overtaking the last tram to pass the hotel that day.

We anyhow decide to head towards our meeting. Walking up Rue Royale and turning left into Rue de Loi …. Almost deserted and in the distance we see army vehicles blocking the road. Upon asking the policeman who is stopping all traffic wanting to enter Rue de Loi whether we can reach the EU quarter he stares at me, holds his breath for 2 seconds and replies: “of course not!”. Gradually I start realizing that we have suddenly entered a completely different reality, a reality we only know from the movies. One cannot reach the cash machine inside the bank – closed. Security officers close a crossing to let multiple security cars with loud sirens pass at high speed, helicopters in the air, even fewer cars and pedestrians in the streets…

Back in the hotel we find out that we have been isolated from the normal world. Public transport has stopped, no railway traffic to and from Germany and the Netherlands. All rental cars are probably hired out by now, if we can get to a rental service at all. The hotel lobby however is a sea of tranquility, coffee is served, no screaming television, no panic among customers and staff, all appears to be “under control”. Though internet, WhatsApp and sms still work, it becomes very hard to make any phone calls. My 15-year old son starts apping me, encouraged by his teacher. Many colleagues and friends follow: “please try to get home safely.” “Yes we are fine and are working on a plan …”. We discuss our research project: “does teaching democratic values contribute to personal development, citizenship or employability?” Through the hotel staff we order a taxi: €300 to get to the first big train station in the Netherlands, Roosendaal.

The Iranian taxi driver uses the smart app Waze to navigate us out of the surrealistic city: almost empty streets, some small road blockades guarded by security staff, closed gasoline stations, a few congested exit routes … we take the narrow streets through seemingly deserted neighbourhoods until we reach the highway where the stream of cars gradually thickens. But … the entrance routes to the city are completely empty. The exit to Zaventem is blocked with police everywhere… we gradually leave the war zone, still not fully realizing what we have just witnessed and experienced.

In the taxi we discuss how such things can happen. Social segregation. Cultural backgrounds, beliefs and attitudes. Geo politics and whether or not the West should interfere in wars outside its territories. After a safe train journey home I embrace my love and feel safe. I am still in time to chair a meeting of the primary schools’ Supervisory Board. After a minute of silence to honour the victims of the terrorist attacks in Brussels and Turkey we discuss how our schools can contribute to the integration of refugees in Enschede. People need to feel welcome, accepted and meaningful. Wherever we are, whoever we meet, whatever we do, we need to respect, adjust, collaborate and integrate. By uniting people and disseminating the core values, beliefs, knowledge and skills that help us to participate in and contribute to society, education is relevant and crucial to the harmonious development of society.


Hans VossensteynAbout Hans Vossensteyn

Hans Vossensteyn is the Director and Senior Research Associate at CHEPS and Professor and Programme Leader of the MBA Hochschul- und Wissenschaftsmanagement at the Hochschule Osnabrück (Germany). His main focus is international comparative research on funding, student financial support, strategic management, internationalisation, quality assurance and study success in higher education. He is also active in various international consultancies, such as in Russia, Mozambique, Uganda, Ethiopia, Lithuania, Latvia, Tunisia and Turkey.

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2 responses to “22 March 2016: Brussels attacks call for integration through education”

  1. Leon says :

    A very good commentary triggered by a very heartbreaking event. But let us reflect on how this relates to higher education, and all that we believe higher education should produce. Let us reflect on what it means to – as you say – “unite people” at a time when public policies all over the world (in higher education but not only) seem to idolize “differentiation”, eliteness, excellence, champions, etc. Might this not perhaps risk encouraging more disparity in our societies, where the “losers” (those who, if they gain access at all, will increasingly be relegated to “not-to-be-proud-of” institutions or programmes) remain inevitably the usual suspects – minorities, immigrants, refugees…? The events in Brussels, which you (and we as CHEPS) lived so closely, should make us think even more about how important what we write, research, study, teach and propose is.

  2. Robert Coelen says :

    In reply to this blog and the comments by Leon, I should point out that, although Dutch education does value excellence, it particularly ensures that even late bloomers get a maximum chance to make it. Someone with an ambition to become a doctor can do this. Even though they may not have been the highest scorer in the school, province, or country, such as is the case in many other countries where the most access is available to the highest academic scoring students.

    I believe through the recent events in Europe and elsewhere, that education is an important part of the solution, but as long as we do not properly pay attention to the development of 21st century skills and the learning outcomes of internationalisation in the curriculum, we are not going to develop young people who can master this situation. I consider proper attention, that the issues are embedded in the curriculum, are monitored in terms of development, and are explicitly listed in the students record.

    In the development of life long learning lines for these topics, primary, secondary and higher education need to agree on an approach, what is being developed at which age and how the different layers of education connect in this regard. Continuing our education by only instilling the cultural norms of one society is about as parochial as allowing young children to grow up with one language, and it short-changes them.

    Thank you Hans for your moving blog on that day you were in Brussels, lets catch up soon

    Robert Coelen

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