Dutch PhD candidates fear a downgrade in status

Could minister Jet Bussemaker’s reforms create a ‘second-class’ group of doctoral candidates?

March 5, 2015

A group of PhD candidates in the Netherlands are fighting the launch of an experiment that they believe could put their employment status in jeopardy.

The Dutch minister for education, culture and science, Jet Bussemaker, has proposed changes under which several thousand PhD candidates would be registered as students rather than as employees, as is now the norm.

But the PhD Candidate Network of the Netherlands (PNN) argues that this will harm research quality and diminish their employment rights.

In the Netherlands, most PhD candidates in academia are employed as members of staff or are undertaking a PhD while employed on a research contract. Very few receive studentships.

Over the past 20 years, some universities have lobbied the government to allow them to treat PhD candidates as students. In the 1990s, several institutions took on PhD candidates as students rather than as employees in experiments similar to that being proposed by Ms Bussemaker.

Victor de Graaff, president of the PNN, told Times Higher Education that the mooted changes left student PhD candidates “very unhappy” and feeling like “second-class PhDs”. He said that PhD candidates who were not employed by their university encountered tax problems last year.

Under Ms Bussemaker’s proposals, up to 2,000 PhD candidates would receive bursaries as students rather than wages as employees.

In a statement on its website, the PNN says it finds the move “undesirable” and “believes the results will not add any value to the results of prior experiments”.

Mr de Graaff said that although there was not much difference between the net salary of PhD candidates treated as employees and those treated as students, student candidates would not be entitled to employment insurance, pension payments and social security benefits, including the right to an extension during pregnancy and unemployment benefits at the end of a contract.

The result could be substantial savings for institutions, he said, citing PNN data showing that the cost of a four-year PhD employee to a university is about €170,000 (£124,000) while the total cost of a PhD studentship is about €70,000.

Mr de Graaff explained how the proposals would affect candidates.

“Being an employee adds to the status of the PhD, so it makes you feel as though you are really part of the group rather than a product of the group,” he said. “As an employee, you feel like another brain rather than [just] another set of hands.”

He added that the move might also deter PhD candidates from taking university positions as it could make jobs in industry more attractive.

The issue was raised in the country’s House of Representatives on 24 February, and several parties asked questions about the proposal. Ms Bussemaker has three weeks to reply before potential further discussion and a decision on whether to proceed with the experiment.

The PNN believes that the pilot is an attempt to change the system permanently, Mr de Graaff said.


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