For more detailed information, check the official VUB and ULB home pages.
The original Free University of Brussels was founded in 1834, as a reaction against the catholic domination in higher education (see the history of the ULB). Its name refers to the complete freedom of inquiry which is the founding principle of the university, and to the freedom of domination by either state or religious authorities. Like almost every institution in the bilingual Belgium, the Brussels university has been split up into a French and a Dutch-speaking part. This led to the creation of VUB as a separate institution in 1969 (see the history of the VUB, and VUB in perspective).
Though ULB and VUB are now practically and legally independent, they maintain good contacts and continue to share their original philosophy which is liberal and progressive, based on the principles of free thinking and humanism. At present, VUB has about 9000 students, ULB about 18000. Although registration fees for university studies in Belgium are already exceptionally low compared to most countries, the Free Universities have always done additional efforts to keep the costs of studying minimal, and to provide extensive social services and financial support, so that students from even the poorest backgrounds would be able to get a degree without discrimination.
Although in the social sense, VUB/ULB can certainly not be described as elitist, many of their researchers and research departments belong to the international elite. The ULB has many distinguished alumni, including Jules Bordet, Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1919, Albert Claude, Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1974, Ilya Prigogine, Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1977, and Pierre Deligne, Fields Medal (the equivalent of the Nobel prize for Mathematics) in 1978. Especially Ilya Prigogine, one of the founders of the "Brussels School" in thermodynamics, has gotten world-wide fame for his discovery of dissipative structures, and the books ("Order out of Chaos", "From Being to Becoming", etc.) he has written, partly in collaboration with the ULB philosopher Isabelle Stengers. Although VUB is a smaller university with a much shorter history, it too has already produced several internationally famous scientists, including the philosopher Leo Apostel, who started his career at ULB under his equally well-known teacher Chaim Perelman, but became full professor at VUB, Jean Bourgain, Fields Medal in mathematics in 1994, Ingrid Daubechies (presently at Princeton), founder of the mathematical theory of wavelets, and Pattie Maes (now at MIT), a leading researcher in intelligent software agents.
For people interested in the cybernetics and systems domain, the most well-known research laboratories at the ULB may well be the Center for Non-Linear Phenomena and Complex Systems, founded by Prigogine, but now directed by G. Nicolis, and IRIDIA, the interdisciplinary AI institute, directed by Philippe Smets. The most interesting centers at the VUB may well be the AI-lab, headed by Luc Steels, and the transdisciplinary Center "Leo Apostel". There is more detailed info available on other departments and persons working at the VUB and at the ULB.
ULB and VUB share their Computing Center (BFUCC), which provides several computing and network services. Moreover, there are many departmental servers.
Apart from its academic hospital, the VUB is concentrated on one campus, "Oefenplein" at the Boulevard du Triomphe in the South-East of Brussels. The ULB has two main campuses, "Plaine" which borders the VUB campus "Oefenplein", and which houses the scientific faculties, and "Solbosch", about 10 min. walking from there at the Avenue Adolphe Buyl, which houses among others the social and human sciences, and engineering. "Plaine" and "Oefenplein" together form a horseshoe-shaped region surrounded by large roads, with the ULB section in the rounded (South-East) part of the horseshoe (see the map in "how to reach the VUB").
In 1987, the VUB founded an English-language division, Vesalius College,
in association with Boston University. Vesalius College offers a US-style
liberal arts education and benefits from the increasing international
population in the larger Brussels area. In addition, both ULB and VUB offer numerous postgraduates (MSc, MBA, PhD, ...) in English.