‘It’s a pretty lousy annual tradition’

You’ve just opened a letter from the tax authorities, demanding payment of back taxes that you know you’re exempt from.

That’s exactly what 15 Ubbo Emmius PhD candidates found in their mailboxes this month. They’re not sure who to trust anymore.

No one looks forward to getting mail from the tax authorities. The belastingdienst branch in Breda sent letters to 15 Ubbo Emmius bursaries at the RUG at the beginning of April, claiming that they were not exempt from paying social security and health insurance taxes in 2011.

Pretty lousy tradition

That is a big problem. Bursary, or scholarship, students at the RUG receive only 1,623 Euros per month – that’s 146 Euros above Dutch minimum wage – and the tax service is calling for them to pay at least 5,000 Euros in back taxes, according to Piet Devos, one of the students who received the letter.

It’s a pretty lousy annual tradition for Devos. ‘The first time you get a letter like that, you have some trouble sleeping at night’, Devos says. ‘In 2011, I got my first letter, and at that time, it wasn’t clear that I wasn’t the only one.’

The confusion painfully illustrates a difference of opinion: the university classifies all PhD candidates as students, whereas the tax authorities see them as university employees. The bursary’s scholarship status means they are automatically exempt from paying these taxes.

No right to exemption

Furthermore, according to Jan Blaauw, a member of the university council and a representative for the PhD’s, all of the students who received the letter are non-Dutch. Foreign students are also exempt from the social security contribution.

The letter in the dreaded blue envelop, written in Dutch, says: ‘As a resident of the Netherlands, generally speaking, you are required to be insured for social security. There do not appear to be any circumstances under which you would be exempted. Therefore, you have no right to partial or total exemption.’

Hitting the wall

How could this happen – again? University spokesperson Gernant Deekens says that the University has a standing agreement with the tax authorities in Groningen not to tax bursaries, but the Breda branch, where the letters came from, was unaware of the arrangement. The RUG has urged the inspectors at the two branches to talk amongst themselves to clear up this issue.

The bursary students had to file an official complaint declaring their bursary status and are awaiting notification from the tax authorities that the original letter is invalid. One bursary student who asked to remain anonymous describes the situation as being Kafkaesque. ‘Everyone says to go to someone else, because they don’t know the answer. It was like hitting the wall with your head.’

Besides the obvious burden of paying so much money, the stress has gotten in the way of actually doing the research she is here for in the first place. ‘I could see my health going down extremely. I was so stressed out by all of it, and I didn’t feel like I had help from anybody.’

Very shadowy

Jan de Jeu, a member of the executive board of the University, seeks to reassure the affected students. ‘If they fall under the category wherein agreements have been reached, then they will not be responsible for taxes.’

Herman Opmeer, a media relations officer for the tax authorities, says that they are still looking into what happened exactly. ‘In this case, a small number of bursary students received notices, in error, that they would be responsible for paying income tax. Their details have been sent to the tax authorities in Breda and it will be straightened out in the coming weeks. All of the bursary students who have so far contacted the RUG are covered under the agreement between the RUG and the tax authorities. The affected bursaries have nothing to worry about and will be contacted personally about this agreement soon.’

Devos and the rest of the students remain skeptical that the issue has been truly resolved. ‘It’s very shadowy. It happened this year, but it may repeat again next year. It remains a very informal agreement’, Devos says.