New party aims for PhD vote: ‘We have specific, achievable ideas’

“This will be published in English, too, right?” Nico Naus asks midway through the interview. The candidate for the new Utrechtse Promovendi Party (Utrecht PhD Party, UPP) is counting on the votes of the non-Dutch PhD candidates in the upcoming university council elections. That’s quite a sizable group of people. This election, foreign bursary PhD candidates are allowed to vote in the U-Raad elections for the first time.

Naus is not just vying for votes; the use of English at the university is an important point in the UPP program. Sitting in a four-person booth in the Bestuursgebouw, Naus – a PhD candidate in software technology – and co-candidate Stephanie de Smale, who’s pursuing a PhD in new media, discuss the complaints they hear from foreign employees: important information at the UU is at best partially translated to English, but more often than not, not available in English at all. De Smale: “This election is a great example. All important documents concerning the election are Dutch-only.” Naus: “Even the sign-up form was only available in Dutch.”

A university that wants to become an internationally oriented institution, with a transparent way of governing itself, needs to communicate in English, including when talking about employee participation, Naus and De Smale say. They understand the resistance popping up in some places to using English. Naus: “But you’re going to have to consider how to engage your foreign employees in the university’s decision making.” De Smale: “And we’re not just talking about the foreign employees, here.”

‘Even the sign-up form was only available in Dutch’

It’s the first time in ten years that there’s more than one party listed on the ballot papers. It’s also the first time a party has presented itself so clearly as the advocate of a specific group of people. Other universities, such as Leiden and Nijmegen, have already become acquainted with the idea of a “PhD party”. The UPP is aiming for two of the twelve available seats – which, with a potential backing of a third of the university’s scientific staff, and a choice between only two parties, does not seem unrealistic.

Naus – known to the DUB reader as René in DUB’s photo comic 3Hoog – and De Smale stress that they’re not just championing PhD candidates’ issues. Aside from English language use at the university, they’re also campaigning for diversity and sustainability. In other words: every UU employee can vote for the UPP. At the same time, the two candidates state there is enough foundation for a one-issue party prioritizing PhD issues.

It’s hard to let the voices of PhD candidates and other young scientists be heard in the university council, because who’s interested in being a council member at the start of his or her career? Everyone’s busy and supervisors may not be happy about any distractions.

If someone does run for a council seat, it’s usually only for a two-year term. Naus: “The current council member Eliane Fankhauser, a PhD student at the Faculty of Humanities, thought a PhD party might have more pull, and can therefore offer more continuity. We were immediately enthusiastic.”

‘A PhD party might have more pull’

Still, neither of them instantly committed when they were asked to become council members themselves. Naus, grinning: “My supervisor was ‘impartial’ to the idea. I decided to interpret that as ‘think it over’. Which I did.” De Smale: “A good supervisor would not stand in the way of a PhD student who wants to grow professionally. But we can only do this because we get the time for it, and we’re allowed to delay our dissertations.”

The winning argument for the two was the conviction that PhD candidates need to be able to have a voice in the highest possible level of employee participation. De Smale: “Of course there’s the university’s PhD network Prout and graduate schools have their own PhD councils, but a lot of the PhD candidates’ displeasure never reaches the university board’s ears.” Naus: “They listen to us, but as members of the U-Raad, we want to make sure that our input makes a difference.”

One of the most important goals the party has for the next few years is to preserve PhD candidates’ employee status. The university has to take a firmer stand against experiments with bursary-funded PhDs, they say. Another issue is the possible change in who has the right to award a doctorate degree, which in turn raises questions about the quality of the supervision.

‘We want to make sure that our input makes a difference’

Slowly but surely, research is making people aware of the stress and heavy workload PhD candidates deal with. A study conducted at the University of Amsterdam showed thirty percent of PhD candidates experienced symptoms of depression, and a recent Belgian study had similar results.

At the Utrecht graduate schools, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of interest in these issues, says De Smale. “Things like that are often only discussed in terms of what it means for the institution – how to avoid delays in PhDs would be the first question asked.” Like Prout, the UPP is campaigning to appoint a university psychologist specialized in PhD issues. Apparently in Delft, the psychologist sees 123 PhD candidates annually.

UPP also wants stricter supervision of PhD candidates’ teaching hours. The requirement to spend many hours teaching is one of the most important causes for the PhD candidates’ high stress levels.  Naus: “In many cases, PhD candidates spend far more hours teaching classes than was agreed upon in their contracts.”

Furthermore, PhD candidates should receive more and better training in teaching skills. De Smale: “The way it is now, they often have to teach classes without any didactic skills, about a subject that has little to nothing to do with their own specialties. Can you imagine how stressful that is?”

At the same time, Naus and De Smale argue that PhD candidates who wish to immerse themselves in how to teach university classes, should be able to do so, by obtaining the university level teaching qualification (BKO). Currently, the two candidates say, every research group or department has their own rules and ways concerning the BKO qualification.

De Smale: “We’re hoping to present best practices that will lead to university-wide policies concerning PhD candidates.” Naus: “We’re seeing so many differences everywhere. Why would one graduate school have a fantastic cource centre for PhD candidates, while the other graduate school has nothing? We want these facilities to become available to all PhD candidates.”

‘Teaching without any didactic skills; can you imagine how stressful that is?’

When asked how, and in what tone, the UPP will present itself in the U-Raad, Naus and De Smale are silent. Clearly, they do not wish to adopt the aggressive rhetoric employed by new student party De Vrije Student (The Free Student).

Naus: “Our ideas are specific and achievable. We’re convinced everyone will benefit when working conditions and schooling for PhD candidates improves. Plus, we want the best for all university employees. We’ve heard the Vlam party wants to work with us, and we’re definitely willing to work with them, too.”

De Smale: “For policy participation, it’s definitely a good thing to have two parties. It’s refreshing for the U-Raad. Vlam has started trying to communicate their points more clearly. That’s a small victory already, I’d say. There will be a debate between the employee parties this week, too.” Smiling, she adds: “Hopefully we’ll still like each other afterwards.”

Naus: “I’ve already asked whether the debate can be held in English.”

*Update 9 mei 2017* Nico Naus e-mailed DUB that the Central Electoral Office let him know that de the application formula was indeed available in English:

On Wednesday DUB organises together with studentunion Vidius an election debate. The parties of students and staff will cross swords. Come to cultuurcentrum Parnassos at the Kruisstraat. The debate starts at 5 pm.

Tags: PhD