No more new bursary students

The RUG is ending the bursary system. It’s not allowed, according to the tax service.

The RUG has always been a champion of the use of bursaries or promotional students: PhD candidates who receive financial aid instead of a salary. That way, the University doesn’t have to pay employer’s tax or contribute to their pension funds, which makes bursary students 30 percent less expensive than traditional PhDs.

However, the tax services claim the system is ‘unsupported by national financial law’, according to a person involved. ‘The system was not sufficiently anchored in the legislation.’

Long-standing court case

Oddly enough, the University won a long-standing court case about the position of the bursary students just last year. The court in Leeuwarden ruled that the PhD students are not employees because there is no authoritative relationship between supervisors and their students. But the tax service does not agree.

They have gotten more involved in the discussion in the past few months. In April, out of the blue, 15 bursaries received a dreaded blue envelop from the tax service in their mail boxes. The letters demanded payment of thousands of Euros in income taxes and premiums because they were considered University employees.

Details of the deal

The RUG discloses the details of the deal they have made with the tax services: current bursaries can keep their positions, but the faculties cannot appoint any new bursaries.

The University is hoping that education minister Jet Bussemaker’s plan to allow universities to experiment with PhD students will make it possible to reinstate the system eventually. But the minister’s plan has already been shelved for a year and a half due to criticism from the Council of State. The order of council still has to be proposed to the House of Representatives.

In the meantime, the RUG doesn’t want any trouble, says Aart Korten, lawyer for the RUG.  ‘That’s why we decided to stop appointing bursary students. The deal that we have agreed upon is that we are not going to make each other’s lives more difficult and just let the current bursaries graduate.’

Bizarre turn of events

‘It’s a bizarre turn of events in a case that has already been full of twists and turns’, says Jan Blaauw, member of the personnel fraction of the University council. ‘But the judges’ ruling may not be the end of the story. If the House of Representatives thinks something has to change, they will find a way. However, there doesn’t seem to be much support for this experiment. The bursaries are really a construction unique to Groningen, and other universities aren’t jumping at the chance to implement it themselves.’

However, the RUG is confident the experiment can be implemented soon. ‘The text of the concept looks promising. We hope we can go ahead and get started quickly’, says Korten.

Vulnerable position

According to Blaauw, the bursary system means that more people have a chance to pursue a PhD, but it’s still a pretty vulnerable position to be in. ‘They take a risk in accepting the position. I’ve heard about a lot of problems over the years. Recently, I met a Chinese woman who came to Groningen four years ago, met someone and wanted to get married. But, she’s a bursary student, and was required to leave after finishing her studies or she would have to pay massive fines. She didn’t know that when she accepted the position. That’s the Achilles’ heel of the system. A bursary system can work, but then as a university, you have to be there for those people if there’s a problem. If you can’t do that, then you shouldn’t have that kind of system.’