Minister Dijkgraaf draws a line under student PhDs

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Dutch universities have lobbied endlessly for a new approach to doctoral degrees, in which PhD researchers would be students rather than employees. The University of Groningen was a particular advocate of this approach and gave its full support to a controversial experiment launched in 2016 by offering places for 1,500 PhD students. The only other institute to participate was Erasmus University Rotterdam, with a mere fifteen places.

Now that the experiment is over, the minister has drawn his conclusions: he sees no added value in the alternative approach. There will be no follow-up to the experiment and he sees no point in making legal provision for a student-based PhD programme. The current trials will stop for good in 2024.

Fragile support
The PhD researchers themselves raised all kinds of objections to the experiment, the minister explains. “It is clear to me that support for the PhD as an educational programme is very fragile”, he writes. That realisation has “strongly influenced” his decision.

The student-based PhD programme was meant to be a third educational cycle, after the Bachelor’s and Master’s programmes. In many countries, PhD researchers already have student status, but in the Netherlands the vast majority are employed by the university on a fixed-term contract.

The minister argues that a system in which PhD researchers are taken on as students does not fit with his “aim of creating more space and stability in the academic system and a solid position for all researchers”.

He bases his position on a critical final evaluation. It states that student PhD researchers feel undervalued. For example, they do not accrue pension and do not receive holiday pay. Although these doctoral students say they feel freer in their choice of research topic than PhD researchers with an employment contract, on a day-to-day basis they experience no difference in working autonomy.

Two camps
Despite all the criticism, the University of Groningen remains a fervent advocate of the new system, especially as a way to give more students the opportunity to pursue a PhD. The evaluation describes the emergence of ‘two camps’ and argues that this situation cannot be seen separately from the other pluses and minuses of doctoral education.

“It is my ambition to bring more space, stability and continuity to the academic system and to create more room for talent”, Dijkgraaf writes. “This is more in tune with seeking uniformity and favourable conditions for the position of all PhD researchers, in terms of legislation and beyond.” Taking a student-based approach to doctoral research does not contribute convincingly to this, he believes.

One of the aims of the experiment was to train more people at PhD level. But the minister argues that this can also be done differently, within the framework of the government’s planned investment in research. “That will create scope for frontier research, for talented researchers and new PhD positions where needed, as well as strengthening the interaction between education and research.”

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