• Bursary PhD students

    'A cat inside a bag'?

    This week, the University Council will vote on the RUG’s plans to resume working with bursary PhD students. While every faculty is willing to take part, concerns remain that the eight-year-long experiment is more trouble than it’s worth.
    in short

    The RUG will request to have 850 PhD students as part of the Ministry of Education’s PhD student experiment. That number will be spread out across five years.

    Several conditions are being placed on the experiment, including a lack of requirement for the students to teach at the university. But that may be difficult to enforce in faculties that commonly task their PhD candidates with teaching.

    PhD students are also allowed to choose their own research topic. Proponents feel that will encourage innovative work, but the reality is that researchers still have to be able to work within the expertise of their faculty’s staff.

    Maarten Goldberg of trade union FVN Overheid objects to the plans, but the union has no say because the status of the students means they will not be employees.

    Lou de Leij, dean of the Graduate Schools, says that the ability for the PhD students to receive benefits such as health insurance and maternity leave has been sorted out internally, but is pending approval.

    full version

    Reading time: 10 minutes (1981 words)

    It was ten years ago that the Dutch Supreme Court ruled that bursary PhD candidates at the University of Amsterdam should indeed be considered employees. In 2013, a ruling was made that approved of the Groningen bursary system, and now, the Ministry of Education is seeking to make it possible for Dutch universities to take on more PhD students than ever.

    Out of the proposed 2,000 PhD student positions that will be approved under the experiment, Groningen is initially requesting 850 (see box ‘Meanwhile, in the faculties…’). The experiment can go forward only if certain distinctions between traditional PhD candidates and the anticipated PhD students are made. Namely, bursaries (PhD students who receive a grant rather than a salary) will have a ‘coach’ rather than a supervisor, will not be required to teach at the university level and should have the freedom to choose their own research topic.

    Not a choice

    Lou de Leij, dean of the Graduate Schools and the person at the university who has been responsible for developing the plans in concert with the faculties, says that while teaching is not required under the new terms, a student will be allowed to teach courses if he or she chooses. He suspects that many will still choose to do so and will be equipped with sufficient training. He also emphasises that the supervisor or ‘coach’ for a PhD student is not his or her boss.

    Yet according to Maarten Goldberg, executive member of the FNV Overheid (The Federation of Dutch Trade Union Movement for government entities, which includes universities) at the RUG, it may not be a matter of choice whether a bursary student finds him- or herself in front of a class. ‘In theory, a bursary PhD student does not have to do what a professor tells them to, because they are not in their employ’, Goldberg says. ‘Seriously? Forget about it. If a professor asks you to do something, you do it, because otherwise, your promotional work will not go well. Everyone knows that.’


    The notion of giving researchers room to pursue ‘curiosity-driven’ research is the main motivation for the RUG to take part, according to De Leij. ‘All PhD students in the experiment will do their PhD research on topics that they generate and propose themselves. It should be good news for everyone that more of this sort of research will be done here!’

    However, Malgosia Kopacz, a Polish post-doc in the microbiology department and a former bursary PhD student, suspects that criterion may prove to be more of a con than a pro. ‘I think it is a bit fake to claim that this will really make them choose whatever they want’, she says. ‘Four years is a long time, so a supervisor or PI (principle investigator, ed.) will be spending a lot of time with that person. Especially a PI that has to run a lab would not be interested in having PhDs that have ideas that are too far from their interest and expertise.’

    Meanwhile, in the faculties…

    In total, 996 PhD students should begin working at the RUG over the course of the next five years in connection with the experiment, even though the university is only officially requesting 850 positions from the Ministry of Education at first. The 11 participating faculties and institutes will take on 625 ‘regular’ PhD students and offewr 131 ‘sandwich’ positions (with half of a researcher’s time being spent in Groningen and half at a partner university).

    Aside from that, 240 ‘supplementary’ positions for students who will come to Groningen from abroad with grants from their home country, will be made available. Although some grants in the latter category will not come close to covering the full costs of the position, ‘within the experiment, it will be easy to bring the financing of those students into keeping with the other PhD students without having any tax implications’, De Leij says.

    All of that will amount to roughly 16 per cent more positions on an annual basis, and the reasons for participating in the experiment vary from one faculty to the next. Dean Oscar Couwenburg from spatial sciences – which will take on 12 bursaries and two sandwich positions throughout the pilot – says that the relatively low number is ‘to gain insight into the relative attractiveness of the bursary plans in comparison to the employee/PhD candidate positions among the students. If it turns out that the experiment is well received, that gives us the option to define more bursary positions’ in the future.

    The dean of the Faculty of Economics and Business, Harry Garretsen, also says his faculty is only requesting a few positions at first. ‘We are taking part in the experiment, but we really see it as a pilot.’

    Rina Koning, policy officer at the FEB-affiliated Research School SOM, says, ‘One condition for us is that the PhD students are able to fully participate in academic education’ – meaning that the bursaries will be able to teach bachelor and master students. ‘A considerable number of our PhD candidates remain in the research field – up to 60 per cent – and it’s also important for our competitive position if other universities take part.’

    For the arts faculty, dean Gerry Wakker says, ‘The faculty wants to participate in order to make sure that the number of PhD positions in our faculty increases. We are operating under the assumption that the current proposal will fall within the experiment and that the best interest of the bursaries in terms of grants and education will also be provided for.’

    Kocku von Stuckrad, the dean of the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies, says that the faculty is eager to participate. ‘We see a lot of opportunities in this experiment’, Von Stuckrad says. ‘We have had equally good experience with bursaries as we have with three year PhD candidates.’

    On that point, De Leij concedes that there must be a ‘match’ between a PhD student and his or her future ‘coach’, and that a student does indeed have to find a supervisor with an affinity for their research topic.

    Off campus

    It’s also unrealistic to pretend that the implications for the researchers don’t extend beyond the university campus. In her experience as a non-Dutch person looking for an apartment in Groningen when she was a bursary, Kopacz says that her unclear employment status made it hard for her to even find a place to live.

    Because bursary students receive a grant each month instead of wages and that money is not supposed to be taxed, rental agencies in Groningen did not understand that her bruto and netto salary were the same. In order to be considered for renting an apartment, agencies often request the bruto (untaxed) salary.

    Kopacz recalls that multiple agencies attributed the confusion to the fact that she wasn’t Dutch. ‘They don’t trust you to actually understand the situation because you are a foreigner.’ According to De Leij, confirming the legal status of the bursaries as students should make that less of an issue, but whether individual real estate agents are up-to-date on the latest Dutch higher education law remains to be seen.

    Little things

    On campus, De Leij insists that it is the university’s intention to ensure that all PhD positions, regardless of financial or employment status, have access to all university services. But even little things like access to coffee machines, an essential part of the academic process for many a researcher, may not be the same for bursaries unless they have a staff pass. ‘There could be these sorts of strange differences between employees and PhD students’, says Goldberg. ‘They have a different status in the staff system or, rather, they’re not in the system at all. It just doesn’t feel right.’

    Goldberg himself recognises the irony of being so preoccupied with the bursary experiment: the whole point is that these men and women are not official university employees, and therefore the union is not ultimately responsible for them. ‘It’s not up to us. It’s up to the representative councils to approve of this’, he says. ‘The main point for us is that we see the act of writing a dissertation as working rather than studying.’

    ‘Buying a cat inside a bag’

    Rieza Aprianto is a member of the University Council and a PhD candidate in the Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences. Despite assurances from De Leij and Rector Magnificus Elmer Sterken that so-called secondary social benefits will be accounted for, Aprianto’s primary concern is the lack of guarantee that health insurance or maternity leave will be provided for the PhD students.

    ‘We need to have a guarantee, not only from the board or professor De Leij, but also from the tax services’, Aprianto says. ‘It’s like buying a cat inside a bag. You cannot make a decision like this sight unseen.’ It is already known that the bursaries will not accrue pension funds, nor will they pay into unemployment insurance. And Aprianto knows personally how much can change in the life of a PhD candidate: he just returned to Groningen from getting married back home in Indonesia.

    ‘PhD candidates are at a later age. You can get married, get pregnant, have a child: all of these sorts of things naturally occur, and if you don’t think about this in advance and just regard these people as students, then basically, you are eliminating a lot of prospective students’, Aprianto says.

    Problem solved

    De Leij says that the university has reached an agreement on the matter, although it wasn’t easy to do so. ‘Some smart people from the Bureau of the university have looked closely at the new administrative decree and the extant laws, and we have come up with a solution that is simple, fits within the legal framework and is tax service-proof. It will cost a bit more, but it means that all the problems from the former system with taxes, health insurance and maternity leave will really and truly be solved.’ The Board of Directors still has to decide on it, but it will likely be addressed during the University Council meeting on Thursday.

    But Aprianto also questions the basic assumption that creating more positions will mean more PhD researchers successfully completing their work. ‘Simply having more positions doesn’t mean you will have more graduates’, he says. ‘You are interacting with your supervisor and there’s the matter of whether you can do your research effectively, so all of that needs to be taken into account to have more PhD graduates.’

    If more staff is not hired to keep the PhD candidate-to-supervisor ratio at its current levels, Aprianto fears the quality of supervision provided to all PhD candidates may suffer.


    Part of the motivation for the government to push the pilot programme forward is to give more Dutch people the opportunity to pursue a PhD position without having to go abroad. But Kopacz has a hard time believing that Dutch students would accept what she sees as an inherently inferior and unequal status if they have any other options. ‘They know they could get a better contract elsewhere’, she says. While De Leij says that he has spoken with many Dutch would-be PhD candidates who are in favour of the plans, Kopacz suspects that the system will remain dominated by foreign students instead.

    ‘I really hope it doesn’t go through’, Kopacz says. ‘The university doesn’t seem to see bursaries as people. A PhD is someone who comes here to do research, and that is a relatively smart person. You cannot treat them as if they don’t know what they want and what they’re doing.’