IOB is the result of the merger of two previously existing smaller development institutes, the College for Developing Countries and the Centre for Development Studies. This bipolar origin can be understood in light of the history of the University of Antwerp. In 1965, in the framework of legislation on ‘university expansion’, two higher institutes of commercial sciences created in 1852, one public, the other run by the Jesuits, were given university status. The fact that RUCA (Rijksuniversitair Centrum Antwerpen) and UFSIA (Universitaire Faculteiten Sint Ignatius Antwerpen) were created side by side rather than as one university must be seen in the Belgian ‘pillarised’ context of the day, with ideological brick walls separating lay and catholic communities.
RUCA took possession of the campus of the former University Institute of Overseas Territories, better known as the ‘Colonial University’, created in 1920 to train colonial administrators. Having formed around 1,000 Masters in Political and Administrative Sciences, most of whom served in ‘Belgian Africa’, the Colonial University closed its doors in 1962, when Rwanda and Burundi became independent after Congo’s independence in 1960. RUCA not only inherited its buildings, but its staff as well. Indeed some of the Colonial University’s tenured staff had been idle (but were paid a salary) since 1962, so why not put them to work again? The 1965 act therefore added an ‘outlier’ to the newly created University under the form of a College for Developing Countries. This pragmatic but costly decision inadvertently laid the basis for what was to become a flourishing development studies institute almost 30 years later.
After some years of slumber, the College started offering postgraduate courses in Public Finance and Economic Planning in 1972. It concentrated on these teaching programmes and had a very limited research output until the early 1990s, when it realised it had to change course if it was to survive in the longer term. The College was overhauled, hired new staff engaged in research, and developed Master programmes in Public Administration and Development. Outside of the regular funding of RUCA, the College received a core grant from the Ministry of Education that ensured its survival.
For its part, in 1973 UFSIA created a Centre for Development Studies in the Faculty of Applied Economics in response to students’ demands for a university committed to development. It became a department in 1992 and changed names several times. In addition to teaching courses in international trade and division of labour, development studies and political economy in the faculties of Applied Economics and of Political and Social Sciences, its staff mainly focused on research, and was able to develop a recognised capacity in development economics.
During the early 1990s, it became clear that these small institutes, each having a full-time academic staff of under a dozen, could not survive on their own. Though depending from distinct University Colleges, they also realised that having two development institutes in Antwerp was an inefficient luxury. A slow momentum toward integration grew with the gradual emergence of a unified University of Antwerp, starting with the founding of a third University College (UIA: Universitaire Instelling Antwerpen) which was created by a 1971 law which for the first time mentioned a ‘University of Antwerp’. Started as a ‘confederation’ in 1978, it took many years of difficult negotiations to eventually lead to the merger of the three institutions into a truly one university in 2003.
In the meantime, the College for Developing Countries and the Centre for Development Studies were busy uniting without waiting for the university to merge. Staff of the Centre taught courses at the College, common research projects were set up, and a Centre for the Study of the African Great Lakes Region was created as a common venture in early 1994. The organic unification proved difficult and cumbersome, as some staff members preferred the illusory comfort of a small institute above much needed critical mass, while the parent institutions RUCA and UFSIA were not keen on relinquishing their ‘jewels’. A major breakthrough came at the end of the 1990s, when the Flemish Ministry of Education offered to financially encourage a merger and UFSIA committed to continue investing in a new unified structure. Even before the merger of the University of Antwerp, the College and the Centre joined forces to become IOB in 2000. It started effectively functioning in February 2001.
Despite the earlier reluctance of some, IOB rapidly developed a common corporate culture, and has since become a significant and visible player in the European landscape of development studies. The importance of the merger showed, among others, in the evolution of academic staff numbers. While the combined strength as a result of the merger was 23 full-time members in 2002, this figure stood at 44 in 2014. A benchmark study on scientific output conducted in late 2014 showed that the percentage of IOB-researchers with above median publication performance during 2009-2013 was the highest in comparison with six other major European development institutes. As far as education is concerned, IOB’s advanced master programmes each year attract students from over thirty countries, and IOB’s alumni community gathers over eighty nationalities. Strong institutional partnerships are thriving in countries as diverse as Burundi, the D.R. Congo, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and Uganda.
With the benefit of hindsight it is clear that, in this ‘age of assessment’, the creation of IOB has proved crucial in safeguarding development studies at the University of Antwerp.