European campaigners are pushing for employment status for all PhDs in a move that could have major implications for young British academics and universities.
Eurodoc, the European-wide organisation of PhD candidates set up in 2002, will vote next year on whether PhD candidates should be considered students or employees. The vote is expected to be a formality.
Eurodoc then plans to use its mandate to begin lobbying the European Commission and national governments for a change in PhDs' employment status.
Eurodoc's campaign will lend weight to moves by the European Commission to publish a European Researchers' Charter in a bid to improve Europe's knowledge economy in the face of competition from the US and, in future, China.
Renzo Rubele, Eurodoc president, said: "The status of doctoral candidates is extremely varied across Europe and crucial if Europe is to have a successful knowledge economy."
Alexandre Urani, a former board member of Eurodoc, said: "When Eurodoc was formed, one of the common threads was a desire for employment status.
"The situation is a mess, hampering mobility and the European Commission's strategy to increase investment in research and development to 3 per cent by 2010."
But for the UK's National Postgraduate Committee, one of 17 European organisations affiliated to Eurodoc, the issue is not so simple.
Jim Ewing, NPC general secretary, said: "The advantages and disadvantages for UK PhDs are finely balanced.
"Students do not pay tax but employees have more rights. Employment could damage academic freedom. We are yet to vote on this."
Tim Brown, former president of the NPC, said that the prevailing view in Europe was in favour of employee status.
He said: "The UK is very much out on a limb on this one. European PhDs cannot understand why we would want to stay with student status.
"If the rest of Europe goes down this path and the UK sticks with student status we may find it hard to attract the best researchers."
Lesley Wilson, secretary-general of the European Universities Association, said: "Ministers made clear the importance of research at Lisbon and Barcelona and last year voted in Berlin to include the doctoral level in the third cycle of the Bologna Process. Improving the status of PhD candidates is crucial to both these processes."
But Iain Cameron, chair of the postgraduate training group for the UK Research Councils, said: "It is a matter of speculation as to whether employment status would really improve the lot of PhD students in the UK.
"In October 2005, the stipend will go up to £12,000, which is £18,000 before tax. You could end up with a money merry-go-round where the Government gave more money to the research councils that it later claimed back in tax."
EMPLOYEE v STUDENT IN THE UK
* Pension and National Insurance contributions can be made
* Social security and other benefits available
* Better for mortgages, tenancy agreements and banking
* The right to be in a trade union
* Better family and childcare support.
* Exemption from council tax
* Eligible for student discounts
* Possibility of tax-free earnings for teaching done in addition to research
* Implications over intellectual property not restrained since they do not work for an institution
* Supervision provided.
SITUATION ACROSS EUROPE
All doctoral candidates are employees
Shuo-Wang Qiao is a former treasurer and board member of Eurodoc. She is a PhD researcher at the Institute of Immunology at Rikshospitalet University Hospital in Olso.
"Besides a higher income and more security, employee status yields social benefits such as pension rights, unemployment support, maternity and sick leave, and democratic rights in the university."
Doctoral candidates are students but should soon have access to employee benefits
Christian Seigler is former president of Eurodoc and now a board member. He is a PhD researcher in engineering and fluid mechanics at the University of Zaragoza.
"Whether we are called students or employees is not so important. What is important is to have the same access to benefits as employees."
Doctoral candidates are students
Tim Brown is former president of the National Postgraduate Committee and coordinator of the supervision and training workgroup for Eurodoc.
"What counts are supervision and training standards. I want to see minimum level of standards across Europe."