UU hopes tax office will cooperate

Universities are barely helping destitute Chinese PhD candidates

Chinese promovendi in 2016 bij bijeenkomst KNAW
Chinese PhD candidates at a meeting at the The Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW) in 2016. Photo: KNAW / Inge Hoogland

When PhD candidates get grants from the China Scholarship Council (CSC), Dutch universities don’t have to pay their salaries or social contributions. However, the monthly allowance they receive is too low to cover the costs of living in the Netherlands, which puts many Chinese students in a tough financial situation. 

The investigative journalism platform Follow the Money found out how many PhD candidates are in this situation and how bad their situation is. There are currently 1,900 of these PhD candidates enrolled in all universities in the Netherlands.

Those on a full-time PhD track only get 1,350 euros a month from the CSC, which is far below the legal subsistence level of 1,750 euros. PhD candidates hired directly by the university to perform similar work earn at least 2,541 euros a month.

The CSC PhD candidates who were interviewed by Follow the Money say they can only get by “by cutting costs on their meals,” which in some cases also includes meals for their children as those with kids are not entitled to any child benefits.

For each successful CSC PhD candidate, the university gets 80,000 euros. The platform informs that Dutch universities deny making a profit on these Chinese PhD candidates but they refuse to give an overview of the costs.

No recruitment
There are 148 Chinese PhD candidates with CSC scholarships in Utrecht, which puts UU somewhere in the middle compared to other Dutch universities. Groningen has the most students in this situation (340), while Tilburg comes last (12).

A spokesperson for UU tells DUB that, in 2017, the university decided not to renew an institutional agreement with CSC as it does "not want to encourage” this type of PhD candidates to come to Utrecht. In addition, UU claims it has never actively recruited them.

Each of the CSC PhD candidates in Utrecht right now approached professors independently. Most of them (64) now work at the Faculty of Science but there are PhD tracks with CSC candidates at all faculties.

Regional differences
These issues have been known for a while. In 2017, UU supervisors rang the alarm in a DUB article, urging the university to support these students in finding affordable housing. The university didn't identify many possibilities in that regard and the options that existed were already being used.

Follow the Money writes that only the universities of Groningen, Maastricht, and Amsterdam assist CSC candidates financially. The University of Groningen, for instance, supplements the grant to a little over 2,000 euros through a "fictitious contract" that includes payroll taxes and social premiums.

Agreements like that are only allowed in consultation with the Tax Office. The Tax Office rules, however, are interpreted differently throughout the country, according to UU's spokesperson. In the past, the university asked the municipality to financially support CSC candidates, but that was denied multiple times.

“Apparently, the tax advisor in Groningen has decided differently. In the light of the Follow the Money article, we will once again meet with the tax advisor in Utrecht to see whether it’s possible to implement an increase like the one in Groningen.”