‘Help Chinese PhD candidates on a scholarship find affordable housing’

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Chinese PhD candidates in Utrecht have to spend a large part of their modest stipend on housing. Some professors of cell biology say the situation is untenable. The university’s consultative bodies are equally worried about the Chinese guests. The board claims they’re unable to change things.

One Chinese PhD candidate had a harsh experience with the lowlives of Utrecht’s housing market last year. He lived with his partner in a building that also housed a café. The owner made the couple pay the energy bill. When the PhD candidate refused to pay, the consequences included lawsuits and threats.

 

“It was a terribly painful situation,” professor Anna Akhmanova remembers. “Of course you don’t want one of your PhD candidates to end up in a situation like that.”

 

According to Akhmanova, it’s nearly impossible for her Chinese PhD candidatest o find good, affordable housing in Utrecht. “They usually try to find a room when they’re still in China, but of course they can’t. With the SSH, the options are limited, especially when someone else joins you here. They often end up having to rely on the private housing market. And when you don’t have a network in the Netherlands, and you don’t speak the language…”

 

When her PhD candidate was threatened last year, Akhmanova decided to unite a group of colleagues within the research group for cell biology and contact Gerrit van Meer, the Dean of the Faculty of Science. Wasn’t there something he could do to improve housing for Chinese PhD candidates? “This is a very specific group of people who work hard and don’t have a lot of demands. Isn’t it possible for the university to help them in some way?”

Akhmanova wasn’t the only one who approached Van Meer with questions about the wellbeing of the Chinese PhD candidates. Faculty council members noticed that many employees with a UU contract felt it was unfair that foreign colleagues received significantly lower salaries.

Most PhD candidates in Utrecht are hired directly by the university. They receive their salaries from either the UU or from a third party financer like NWO (Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research). However, there are also PhD candidates who come to Utrecht on a scholarship, such as those offered in China.

In the past few years, around 35 of these scholarship-funded PhD candidates came to Utrecht from China. At this moment, there are approximately 140 of them working at the UU. The Chinese PhD candidates use an exchange program set up by the Chinese Scholarship Council (CSC) and receive a scholarship for four years of about 1200 euros a month.

By contrast: a PhD student employed directly by the UU receives a salary of 2174 euros gross in the first year, to 2779 euros in the fourth year. On the other hand: the pay the Chinese candidates receive is still higher than the Immigration Services’ (IND) minimum wage for foreign researchers, which is 1086 euros gross (excluding vacation pay), 70 per cent of the minimum wage.

In Groningen, the CSC PhD students receive an extra stipend of 500 euros a month to complement their 1200 euros a month scholarship. The University of Groningen is able to offer this money because they’re participating in a pilot with scholarship-funded PhDs, for which they’ve made arrangement with the Dutch tax authorities. Within the confines of this PhD experiment, all PhD candidates in Groningen – both Dutch and foreign – receive a scholarship of 1700 euros total a month. Utrecht University, along with most other Dutch universities, decided last year not to join this pilot.

A report by the China-Utrecht Scholar Association (CUSA) published last year showed that almost all scholarship-funded PhD candidates spend more than a third of their stipend on housing in Utrecht. Almost 50 per cent pays more than 500 euros a month for housing.

When asked by DUB, four representatives of CUSA say they do not expect the UU to be able to offer immediate compensation. At the same time, they point out that PhD candidates in other cities in the Netherlands or in other European countries spend much less each month but have much better living conditions.

Former chairman Haoran Yang, PhD candidate at Geo sciences: “If the UU wants to keep attracting Chinese PhD candidates, they need to be aware of these differences. That, or they need to accept that only Chinese PhD candidates who have rich parents are able to come to Utrecht.”

Science Faculty’s dean Van Meer says the university council needs to be made aware of these problems. The executive board is responsible for the agreements with scholarship institutes and housing providers.

But Van Meer also hints that he’s unhappy with the situation as it is right now. The dean says he knows of situations in other countries where PhD candidates had to prove they had access to a certain amount of money. That was then matched to a pre-established standard amount. The dean realizes that a system like this is impossible to realize in the Netherlands at this time.

In the University council, Rector Magnificus Van Der Zwaan was asked whether the university has the moral responsibility to do something for these foreign guests. According to him, the answer is no: there might be financial difficulty here and there, but that is between the PhD candidate and the institute who gives the scholarships, and the UU has no influence on it.

“Our relationship with these PhD candidates is really no different from that which we have with master’s students,” Van der Zwaan claimed. “These are students who come here for education. We just make sure there is a PhD at the end. It’s not a one-way deal. PhD positions cost the university a lot of money, while at the same time, the PhD bonus for the university decreases.”

The rector acknowledged that the housing situation in Utrecht is problematic for the foreign PhD candidates. “However, in this, we’re dependent on third parties, and our influence is relatively small.”

When asked, the university’s Corporate Offices state that the UU cannot guarantee housing - a consequence of the ever-growing pressure on Utrecht’s housing market and the increase in foreign students, PhD candidates and researchers trying to find a place to live. The UU makes no promises to either CSC PhD candidates or other groups. Chinese PhD candidates who want to come to Utrecht for their PhD, now receive extra information about the challenges of housing and the high rents in Utrecht.

The UU says it neither is a housing corporation, nor does it wish to be, but that doesn’t mean the UU isn’t trying to change anything about the housing situation for the Chinese guests. The new International Service Desk claims to carefully keep track of the housing of Chinese PhD candidates. Most sign up with the SSH, but others try different ways to find lodging. This year, fourteen Chinese PhD candidates found accommodation in SSH’s short stay rooms; others found housing in another way.

The UU reserves rooms for foreign guests with the SSH and has maximized the capacity. At this moment, around 700 rooms, studios and apartments are reserved for a yearly cycle of about 1100 different foreign guests. Because more and more PhD candidates come to the Netherlands with a partner, ten extra two-person studios have also been added.

After Van der Zwaan’s statements, the university’s consultative bodies seem to be wrestling with the housing issue. In theory, it should be the case that the Chinese PhD candidates are happy with their research positions in Utrecht, the professors are happy with their PhD candidates and the faculty and university are happy with the extra success in their efforts at internationalization.

The new PhD party UPP, who will run in the upcoming elections for the university council, state they will keep an eye on the Chinese candidates’ interests. The party is happy with the recent decision to grant suffrage to foreign PhD candidates on a scholarship and to allow them to influence on the composition of the university council.

Anna Akhmanova isn’t eager for a discussion about extra funds for her foreign scholarship-funded PhD candidates. “The money will need to come from us, somehow. That would mean effectively sabotaging the CSC program, because we don’t have that money. That would be a shame, because these are extremely motivated people who really mean a lot to our research.”

Although Akhmanova understands the difficult position the UU has in the Utrecht housing situation, she says that the best way for the university to contribute to the Chinese PhD candidates’ wellness would be to provide affordable housing. It makes a difference, she says, that master’s students stay in Utrecht for a year or two, whereas PhD candidates stay much longer than that. “We can hardly be proud of the current situation. Of course all Chinese PhD candidates will find a place to live in Utrecht eventually. But what is our international policy, really?”

The Chinese PhD candidates themselves would like to have better and cheaper housing options, but state they would be most helped by clarity about their status in Utrecht. Their status as guests leads to uncertainty about their duties and rights, they were quoted as saying last year in their CUSA report. They can be regarded as students one moment, and as employees the next – which can have negative consequences.

Haoran Yang: “The rules for PhDs are the same for us and for candidates employed directly by the university. So in that sense, we might be employees, too. But that would mean we need clarity about our hours and vacations. If we’re students, as the rector says, then we should have an educational program as well, which we don’t. That would be fine – it’s how most PhD programs in the US are, for example. But I don’t think all CSC candidates would still be interested in coming to Utrecht as students: they’ve already graduated from their master’s programs.”

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