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Talk, talk, and more talk about better contracts for PhD students


Sometimes PhD students are presented with peculiar employment contracts that the collective labour agreement does not allow. The solution, according to outgoing Minister of Education Ingrid Van Engelshoven: employers must get together and talk, talk, talk.

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PhD positions at Dutch universities are supposed to be full-time for four years, according to the collective labour agreement. But quite often the work is part-time, the contract is for three years or there are additional teaching duties.

Dubious contract
Every year, PhD Network Netherlands (PNN) puts this issue to the test by analysing all the job vacancy ads for new doctoral students. The most recent Monitor of Employment Conditions for the year 2019 states that many postings are rather vague, and for at least 12 percent of the vacancies, candidates were offered a “dubious contract”.

Egged on by Parliament, the Minister entered into talks with employers: the Association of Universities in the Netherlands (VSNU), funding organisation Dutch Research Council (NWO), the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW), and hospital federation NFU. 

More talks
In order to keep a finger on the pulse, several political parties submitted lists of questions that the Minister has now answered. The common thread: more talks are in the offing. Everyone will be talking with everyone.

For example, the VSNU will hold “regular consultations” with the PNN “in order to firm up their doctoral student policy”, and NWO, KNAW and NFU would like to keep talking about “exceptions and areas for improvement arising from the PNN Monitor”.

And then there’s the Minister herself. She wants to maintain a dialogue with PNN about the highly contested experiment with scholarship PhDs (who fall outside the CLA). She herself will also be holding talks with the University of Groningen, which has appointed the highest number of such doctoral students.

Will all these talks lead to anything? “It’s not moving as fast as we would have liked”, PNN chairperson Rosanne Anholt says. “The problems have not gone away: we still regularly receive calls from PhD students who wonder whether it’s considered normal that they’ve been given a three-year contract for 0.8 FTE.”

Still, certain steps are being taken. For example, the PNN has drawn up a checklist and sent it to all the HR directors via the university association. “It lists exactly what requirements a PhD job vacancy has to meet according to the PNN”, Anholt explains. “We now have to wait and see whether, and if so when, this kind of thing makes its way through to the departments.”

The employers have told the Minister that their HR departments are using the checklist for composing their job postings, Van Engelshoven writes. Anholt is hoping that PhD students will notice the results.

Another step is that the institutions are to put their career counselling services to work for PhD students. Moreover, the universities are going to check whether the number of teaching assignments can be limited. And they will be holding talks about this with the PNN.

The PvdA believes that it could all be much more specific. For example, the party asked the Minister whether there would be any deadlines for the improvements. PNN chairperson Anholt thinks that’s a good idea. “Then you can check whether anything has really changed.”

The next PNN Monitor on employment conditions in job vacancies will appear in September. It will cover 2020, so the influence of the checklist will probably not yet be noticeable. “Maybe it will be next year”, Anholt says.

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