PhD students as staff: Continental shift

Giving employee rights to doctoral candidates seen as key step to make life in academia more attractive, Holly Else writes

May 18, 2017
Map of Europe
Source: iStock

The debate as to whether those pursuing PhDs should be treated as students or staff at a university has its roots firmly in continental Europe.

Sweden’s move to class PhD candidates as staff in a bid to give them better employment rights is in step with the long-standing policy direction set out by a number of key European bodies.

The Salzburg Principles for doctoral education in the European Higher Education Area, for example, adopted in 2005, say that PhD students “should be recognised as professionals – with commensurate rights – who make a key contribution to the creation of new knowledge”.

Gareth O’Neill, president of the European Council of Doctoral Candidates and Junior Researchers, calls developments in Sweden “a significant step in the direction of recognising doctoral candidates as professionals and treating them accordingly across Europe”.

Doctoral students are integral elements in the two core aspects of universities’ activities: teaching and research. Often, they generate academic publications. “It is unfair to not treat them as employees while they behave as employees,” argues Mr O’Neill.

But perhaps a more nuanced approach could be taken, rather than enforcing a blanket policy on universities; some systems afford flexibility so that PhD candidates can be treated either as students or staff.

At the University of Zurich, for example, all PhD candidates are enrolled as students. But those whose PhDs are funded by the university, or the Swiss National Science Foundation, are classed as employees and receive a salary, while self-funded candidates are classed as students, according to Ulrike Müller-Böker, head of the human geography unit at the institution.  

Professor Müller-Böker said that some faculties treat PhD candidates as employees so that they have better oversight of PhD progress and to ensure that they are provided with social benefits and accident insurance, for example.

Mr O’Neill points out that PhD students “often have difficulty finding housing contracts and cannot get a mortgage with no fixed employment income, let alone consider the discussion about starting a family and having children”.

By making an academic career and life more attractive to talented undergraduates, treating PhD students more like employees could be of benefit to universities, not just doctoral candidates, in the long term.

holly.else@timeshighereducation.com

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POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Sweden may be start of continental shift with mutual benefits

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