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Belgium: Non-EU graduates will soon be able to remain for one year to look for work

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • Belgium will allow non-European students to stay for one year after graduating later this fall to look for a job or start a company – currently, these students must find a job immediately after finishing studies if they haven’t found an employer to sponsor their visa

Belgium is in many ways one of the most international countries in the world. A founding member of EU, NATO, the eurozone, the World Trade Organisation, and the OECD, Belgium also hosts many multinational companies and organisations – including the European Commission – in its capital city, Brussels. But for all that, the country has lagged in adopting a key strategy used by most competitive destinations to attract international students: policies that make it easy for these students to remain in the country after graduation and find a job.

But in March, Belgium’s Council of Ministers approved a proposal to allow non-European students to remain in the country for 12 months to find a job or start a company after they graduate. The “search year” (that has also been called “orientation year”) is expected to come into legislated effect in October 2021.

The imminent policy is intended to:

  • Make Belgium more competitive with Hungary, where 10,000 non-EU international students went in 2019, and the Netherlands, which hosted 20,000 that year. In comparison, only 8,600 non-EU students studied in Belgium in 2019.
  • Attract talented non-EU students to remain in Belgium and contribute to the labour force – a real need given that roughly a quarter of the population is over the age of 60 and this is expected to increase to 33% by 2050.
  • Enable more non-EU students in Belgium – many of whom are at the post-graduate level – to be able to find a job in the highly internationalised economy of the country instead of having to leave right after graduating if they don’t immediately find a job.

Post-study job seekers will have “find a job offering salary thresholds, start their own company, or find an internship with an international or government organisation in order to get a new permit once their current visa is expired.”

Proposal makes sense from an ROI perspective

Asylum and Migration Minister Sammy Mahdi, who launched the proposal, explained that the idea makes sense as well in terms of Belgium’s return on investment on hosting international students:

“This isn’t a lottery ticket but a winning opportunity both for us and their home countries. Every student costs the authorities €12,000 per year. That’s an investment that gives us nothing if we send students back to their home countries several weeks after their studies because they don’t immediately find jobs.”

In the Netherlands, non-EU students have a year to find a job or start a business, while in Hungary, they have nine months.

Currently international students make up about 10% of Belgium’s overall student population, down from 11% in 2014. Most are from China (1,000); the US (650); Turkey, India, and Canada (roughly 400 each); and Mexico, Brazil and the Democratic Republic of Congo (roughly 300 each). International students are particularly well-represented at the doctoral or equivalent level, with 40% or more of all students in postgraduate programmes coming from abroad, compared with the OECD average of 22%.

Belgium’s higher education system is relatively affordable for international students. Average annual tuition for non-EU students studying at any study level is €4,175 (US$4,900).

Currently, six universities in Belgium are ranked in the Top 300 Times Higher Education global rankings. Belgium ranks in the Top 25 economies in the world and is, with Switzerland and the Netherlands, in the Top 3 most globalised countries.

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