PhD scholarship students at the University of Groningen remain students

Foto: Maarten Hartman

The University of Groningen is the scene of a major experiment among around 850 PhD candidates. These PhD candidates are not university employees but students, and consequently receive a grant rather than a salary. They do not accrue pension and do not come under the university's collective labour agreement.

Minister Ingrid van Engelshoven was not enthusiastic about the experiment and initially did not want to extend it. But, under pressure from the House of Representatives, she has opened a new application round anyway.

PhD scholarship students subsequently drew up a manifesto in which they demanded to be as yet regarded as employees. They also demanded compensation for lost revenues. The manifesto has since attracted 227 signatures, not including the signatures of 600 sympathizers. A range of trade unions and pressure groups also support the demands. And political parties GroenLinks, D66 and PvdA have submitted Parliamentary questions about the issue.

No adverse effects
Van Engelshoven does not intend to end the experiment, as she now writes in her answer. An interim evaluation conducted last year apparently demonstrated that the experiment had not resulted in any ‘serious adverse effects’ to the climate of research at the university.

Nevertheless, the minister seems to have doubts about the interim evaluation herself. She is having an ‘independent party’ verify whether the interim evaluation has been carried out in accordance with scientific procedures.

Furthermore, the minister does not deny that there are any problems. She has appealed to the University of Groningen to improve its communication on the issue. Experience shows that both PhD candidates and PhD supervisors are not always abreast of the rules of the experiment.

A major complaint of PhD scholarship students is that they sometimes have to take on teaching duties against their will, even though they are not supposed to be giving classes. Nevertheless, refusing teaching duties does not always seem possible owing to peer pressure or because PhD candidates are fearful that doing so will damage their careers, for example.

This is a situation the minister considers unacceptable. ‘The freedom of doctoral students to decide for themselves whether to take on teaching duties or not is an important part of the essence of the doctoral student,’ she writes. ‘There should be no question of an obligation on doctoral students to teach classes.’

Van Engelshoven writes that if financial compensation is the only difference between doctoral students and doctoral student employees, doctoral students are protected under employment law. In that event, a court could rule that doctoral students must be seen as employees, the minister warns.

Already last year medical doctoral students instituted proceedings, according to university newspaper UK. They are demanding the same rights as regular PhD students at the University Medical Center Groningen (UMCG). Their action may end up in court.

Yet, going to court is easier said than done, says Lucille Mattijssen, chair of the PhD Network Netherlands. After all, legal action is very time-consuming and expensive. ‘This type of litigation can take longer than your doctorate.’

Mattijssen is a fierce opponent of the experiment involving doctoral students and finds it odd that the minister repeatedly refers to the interim evaluation. ‘The evaluation is the object of so many doubts that she is having it verified by an independent party. Given that, how can anyone put it forward as an argument right now?’

Tags: student-PhDs | PhD