Adult illiteracy is virtually nonexistent. Education is free and compulsory for children between the ages of 6 and 18. The teaching language is that of the region—French, Dutch, or German.
Belgium has two complete school systems operating side by side. One is organized by the state or by local authorities and is known as the official school system. The other, the private school system, is largely Roman Catholic. In 1995 private school enrollment accounted for 55.2% of all primary enrollment and 65.8% of secondary enrollment. For a long time, the rivalry between the public and private systems and the question of subsidies to private schools were the main issues in Belgian politics. The controversy was settled in 1958, and both systems are presently financed with government funds along more or less identical lines.
Since 1971, new constitutional guidelines have strengthened the autonomy of Wallonia and Flanders in educational administration and policymaking. Schools in both regions provide compulsory primary education for children from ages 6 through 12, followed by six years of secondary education.
In 1996, primary schools enrolled 742,796 students. The pupil-teacher ratio at the primary level was 13 to 1 in 1999. Secondary level schools had 1,058,998 students and approximately 127,000 teachers in 1996. Higher education centers on the eight main universities: the state universities of Ghent, Liège, Antwerp, and Mons; the two branches of the Free University of Brussels, which in 1970 became separate private institutions, one Dutch (Vrije Universiteit Brussel) and the other French (Université Libre de Bruxelles); the Catholic University of Brussels; and the Catholic University of Louvain, which also split in 1970 into the Katholicke Universiteit Leuven (Dutch) and the Université Catholique de Louvain (French). The higher-level institutions had 358,214 students in 1996.
Government expenditure for education rose rapidly after the school agreement of 1958 and accounted for about 6.0% of the government's budget in the latter part of the 1990s. As of 1999, public expenditure on education was estimated at 3.1% of GDP.