Minister wants to extend students PhD's experiment after all

Afbeelding Wikipedia / The Noun Project

Earlier, the minister had stated she didn’t want to extend the student-PhD experiment because of the very limited participation of universities. After a widely-accepted motion from political party CDA, however, Van Engelshoven has come around (in Dutch, ed.). Universities have until January 1, 2020 to register for the experiment.

The trial started in 2016. The experiment had a set maximum of two thousand student PhDs, who aren’t hired as employees by universities, but instead receive grants. At University of Groningen, a total of 588 student PhDs started in the first two years, plus fifteen at Erasmus University Rotterdam.

This only applies to PhD candidates for whom universities provides funding from their so-called first flow of money. PhDs will still be regular employees if they’re hired based on research grant funding (second flow), or when they’re hired for research in collaboration with businesses (third flow). The experiment was supposed to lead to an increase in the number of PhD candidates.

No negative effects
The latter succeeded quite well, according to the midway evaluation (in Dutch, ed.) done by research agency CHEPS. The number of PhD candidates at the University of Groningen increased from 675 to 759 between 2012 and 2018, although the share of Dutch PhD candidates within that group dropped from 53 to 44 percent.

Less successful is the fact that the number of employed PhDs at the University of Groningen has dropped by around 75 since the start of the experiment. CHEPS states there’s an “unintentional replacement by student-PhDs.” It’s a “conscious policy decision” to mostly hire new PhD candidates as student-PhDs. They’re cheaper, and it means that in a situation where financial means remain the same, it’s possible to recruit more PhD candidates, the report states.

But the minister is critical in her response: it was never the intention that hiring student-PhDs would be done at the expense of the number of employee-PhDs, she writes. “I am critical of this development and will include it in the final evaluation.”

Researchers also looked at the freedom student-PhDs have to shape their own research. At the University of Groningen, 37 percent has designed their own PhD track to a large extent, as opposed to 12 percent of employee-PhDs. That freedom, however, is strongly connected to the discipline: it’s often larger in social sciences, Law, and humanities.

A big downside is that student-PhDs are generally unhappy about their income. They feel that they’re doing the same research as employee-PhDs, and they demand equal payment. They also feel less appreciated sometimes.

Additionally, some student-PhDs bemoan the fact that they’re not allowed to teach classes. On the other hand, there are also student-PhDs who are forced to teach classes when they don’t actually want to, nor are they required to. The latter is especially lamentable, says the minister. They cannot be forced to teach. At the same time, she warns against the rise in workload for employee-PhDs if student-PhDs don’t teach any classes.