Function-based contract for PhD candidates and young lecturers raises concerns


The alarm was first sounded by members of the University Council and the chemist Gert Folkers, who doubts whether the university’s pilot project (article in Dutch, Ed.) that introduced the so-called function-based contracts is beneficial for PhD candidates. “I have been hearing stories about PhD candidates who feel like they weren't sufficiently informed about the advantages and disadvantages of this type of contract. Now, they are finding out that the contract is not as appealing as they were told.”

The pilot started in 2017. All researchers and supporting staff in the 11th position of the salary scale or higher can now choose to sign a function-based contract. In this type of contract (link accessible only to those with a Solis ID, Ed.) employees come to an agreement with their supervisors about their specific tasks and responsibilities, as well as the results that are expected from them. For anything else, employees are free to decide how and when they prefer to do their work. That also means that they are, for the most part, able to organise their own working week and determine for themselves when to take days off.

The evaluation of the pilot has been delayed because of Covid. The results are expected later this month.

“The premise of a function-based contract is nice, but I wonder whether it benefits PhD candidates", says Folkers. "Young scientists are very dependent on their supervisors, who can refuse to grant them vacation days. Moreover, PhD candidates might put so much pressure on themselves to perform that they never dare or desire to use their vacation days. In a function-based contract, their right to those days expires. That cannot be good for their mental and physical health.”

When function-based contracts were introduced, some said that financial incentives were an important factor, aside from the increased liberty for employees and the decreased administrative burden. University employees with regular contracts often save up a lot of vacation days, which must be paid to them when they leave the university. That's not the case with function-based contracts.

Folkers does not know if that is the reason departments use function-based contracts so much. “But those vacation days are a considerable expense for the departments. I'm still not sure why that risk should fall on an individual department and not the university as a whole, though.”

UU's Rector, Henk Kummeling, replied confidently when Folkers talked to him about his concerns in a University Council meeting. According to the rector, it was impossible for new employees not to be able to freely choose either of the two contract types.

Even so, worrying signs have been accumulating these past weeks. Laura van der Kamp, chair of PhD candidate platform Promovendi Overleg Utrecht (Prout), emphasises the “vulnerable” position PhD candidates are in because of their dependency on their supervisor.

According to her, Prout knows of several situations in which PhD candidates have been refused vacation days because of a bad relationship with their supervisor, or because the PhD candidate was behind schedule in their research. If these PhD candidates have a function-based contract, the vacation days they do not take are lost. “We think this situation is undesirable, we would like for PhD candidates’ vacation days to be ensured in the collective labour agreement and for the untaken leave days to be paid out.”

The information provision about this contract type is also often lacking, according to Prout. “There have been cases where only the advantages of the function-based contracts have been discussed, or where the PhD candidate was not even told that they could choose between a function-based contract and a regular contract. The fact that an employee has three months to rethink and refuse the function-based contract is often not mentioned either.”

For those reasons, Prout is calling for the regular employment contract to be set as the standard option for PhD candidates, with the function-based contract as an alternative. “At the very least, it is necessary that the procedures are open and transparent during the appointment interview, and that PhD candidates receive all the information they need to make a well-informed choice.”

The subject was also discussed in the local consultation, where unions and the UU meet.  “We acknowledge the concerns”, declares spokesman Paul ter Veld in an email. The unions find that supervisors should see to it that PhD candidates take their vacation days, especially considering they are often under a high self-imposed pressure to perform.

According to Ter Veld, PhD candidates have been “nudged” toward the function-based contract. This seems to be a common occurrence in the Faculty of Science. “Upcoming PhD candidates should make this decision very consciously for their own sake, not to fix their employer's problem – namely, the surplus of vacation days.”

Good employers
The council of the Faculty of Science addressed the subject in April. The faculty board announced that 147 employees, or one in 10, had a function-based contract at the time. Most of them (91) are working for the Chemistry department. In total, this concerns 66 PhD candidates, of whom 58 work for the Chemistry department.

Approached by DUB, Faculty director Klaas Druijf did not want to react to these numbers and the questions surrounding function-based contracts. At the end of June, when the pilot evaluation results will be made public, Druijf wants to speak with the faculty council first.

In the most recent council meeting, Druijf announced an open discussion paper about what good employment practices entail with regards to the vacation time arrangement and mental health of PhD candidates.

A great instrument
Chemistry department head Bert Klein Gebbink thinks the high number of function-based contracts among Chemistry PhD students can partly be explained by the fact that his department has a relatively high number of PhD candidates. But he also says that his department has participated more “actively” in the function-based contract pilot than others.

Klein Gebbink: “In a way, a function-based contract matches the nature of academic work better than a regular contract. PhD candidates are ambitious people. Many of them want to devote themselves to their research and invest lots of time in it. We want to provide them with the space to do so.”

According to the department head, PhD candidates are well informed about what this type of contract entails. “The department’s HR officer explains the advantages and disadvantages of both contract types, and first offers a regular contract. The upcoming PhD candidate can then choose the type of contract they want to sign. The HR department represents both the employer’s and the employee’s interests. The department’s approach is that we prefer new employees to sign a function-based contract.”

Klein Gebbink himself has a function-based contract. To him, it is a “fantastic instrument”. The department head refutes that the Chemistry department is offering function-based contracts for financial reasons and to avoid the build-up of vacation days. That a PhD candidate that has accidentally not used up all of their vacation days will not get paid for them, is not saying much to him. “A beautiful PhD is worth something too.”

Great freedom
Two chemistry PhD candidates who spoke to DUB say that they are satisfied with their choice to sign a function-based contract. Two years ago, Errikos Kounalis was informed by his supervisor and the HR department about the two contract types. “I do not think I was steered in the direction of a function-based contract. I truly got to choose for myself.”

Kounalis likes that he does have to keep a record of his vacation days, and that it is easy for him to spontaneously decide to take a few days off. “Of course, I have to keep my teaching and student supervision duties in mind, and I always notify people when I take days off, but other than that, it feels like a great freedom.”

Chemistry PhD candidate Mirjam de Graaf thinks it is reassuring that she will never “run out of” vacation days. She can take days off when she wants to or when necessary. She is glad that her supervisor stresses the importance of taking care of one's mental health, which includes taking days off regularly. “But I usually know when I need to take vacation days.”

Looking back to her appointment interview, De Graaf does think the information about the two contract types could have been better. “I don’t think the HR department didn’t try their best for me, but it was obvious that the function-based contract was the best option from their perspective. And if it’s your first job, then it’s difficult to determine what consequences your choice will have. Universities should pay more attention to that.”

De Graaf ended up going for the function-based contract: “If they recommend it and a lot of my new colleagues have one, then it’s probably going to be alright.” When she heard about her possibly missing out on getting paid for days off she wouldn't take, she seriously reconsidered her choice. “But in the end, I chose not to switch, and I don’t regret that.”

De Graaf and Kounalis both acknowledge that they are not able to judge whether their situation would have been better with a regular contract. They also understand that a function-based contract might lead to trouble if the relationship with the supervisor is disturbed or when the project is under time pressure, but for them, things are going well. They also have not heard any colleagues complain about their function-based contracts.

Not intended
UU’s HR director Aletta Huizenga says in an email to DUB that they have had talks with the unions about the way the Faculty of Science has actively promoted the function-based contracts as part of the pilot. She also stresses that the choice for either of the two contract types is always up to the employee. “An employee should not feel pressured into participating. Some might have experienced it that way, but that is expressly not our intention.”

Huizenga adds that she is waiting for the pilot evaluation, which, according to her, is also going to assess the necessity or advisability of not offering the function-based contract to certain groups of employees.

Young lecturers
If it were up to Dian Enting, a junior lecturer at the Faculty of Social Sciences and member of University council, when evaluating the pilot, UU would not just look at the implications of the function-based contract for PhD candidates, but also carefully consider the position young lecturers are in. In a council meeting, Enting asked the Executive Board to take that into consideration. During their appointment interviews, candidates often hear about the university’s preference for a function-based contract, even though they can’t fully oversee the consequences of that choice.

Enting herself was told that it would be better for lecturers to sign a function-based contract. “The thought was that you execute your tasks and then take time off outside of those responsibilities, but in practice, things are never that clear. Sometimes weeks without classes are more intense than those with classes, as you have to prepare your classes, for instance. Then your off days vanish.”

She also stresses that she has to ensure her tasks are taken over by colleagues when she takes days off. “That is quite stressful: everyone is incredibly busy already.”

The junior lecturer realizes that a function-based contract has its advantages too, and she doesn’t know whether she regrets her choice. “At least you never have to feel guilty if you finish early one afternoon and can do something else.”

Enting wonders whether young scientists consciously choose function-based contracts or just follow the university’s advice. “I think the university should investigate what the consequences are for young scientists that sign function-based contracts. Is the intention to give them more freedom also noticeable in practice? And what do these contracts entail when it comes to workloads and mental health? Do the people with this type of contract take enough time off? It wouldn’t amaze me if, like PhD candidates, these lecturers need more supervision when choosing their contract type and afterwards".