‘Bursary? No, thanks’

Four would-be PhD candidates successfully petitioned their faculty board to protect the staff positions they applied for from becoming bursary student spots.
By Traci White

Last autumn, four graduating Research Master’s students from the Faculty of Behavioural and Social Sciences (FBSS) were looking to the next step of their academic careers. The international students decided to stick around Groningen, so they applied for PhD staff positions in the faculty. But when the RUG announced its plans to move forward with the ministry of education-approved bursary experiment, the positions they were applying for changed.

Bait and switch

According to Ole Gmelin – one of the would-be PhD candidates – once the bursary experiment plans were approved, the Graduate School of Behavioural and Social Sciences sought to change the type of position he and his fellow master’s students were interviewing for mid-process. The job vacancy seemed to become a bait and switch: the students applied for traditional PhD positions, but they became vacancies for bursary positions along the way.

‘For a while it looked like we’d be forced to take on the scholarships’, Gmelin says. The unexpected change dismayed Gmelin and his fellow students, but the prospect of being placed in a position that he saw as inferior to the one he applied for was also frustrating. ‘The advantages of the staff contract are numerous’, he says, namely protection during illness and maternity, and the ability to build up a pension fund.

Letter of complaint

‘We wrote a letter of complaint and joined our head of research [Ernestine Gordijn]’, he continues. The letter urged the board to repeal the decision and implement the plans to convert future PhD positions into bursary student spots at a later date. Gordijn’s view of the situation was that these students deserved better. ‘Generally, I just wasn’t okay with how it transpired, and I informed the faculty board about that’, she says.

‘You can think whatever you like about the bursaries, but putting that aside, I think that if people want to go for something, and they’re our best students, then they have all sorts of options available to them, but they chose to go for our PhD Fund to try to get a PhD position. Had they known that it was going to be a bursary position, they may not have even applied in the first place.’

Choosing a topic

One of the biggest advantages of the bursary system – that students choose their own research topic – has long been the standard through the PhD Fund, according to Gordijn. The PhD Fund, which has existed since 2008, was specifically founded to provide financing for the Research Master’s students in the faculty, but it will be at least partially used to finance bursary positions in the near future. At FBSS, the bursary positions are only available to foreign students, according to the faculty’s website.

Director of the Graduate School for Behavioural and Social Sciences Roel Bosker confirms that the faculty’s PhD Fund will be used to finance up to ten bursary positions per year for three years, starting this academic year. ‘We still have to determine whether that fund will only be available to our own Research Master’s students or if we will also open it up to other candidates’, he says via email.

‘First job, here I come’

That decision remains to be seen. But for the current students, the faculty board recognised their objections and agreed that the positions they were applying for should remain traditional PhDs rather than bursaries.

Rita Landeweerd, managing director of the faculty board, explains the groups’ reasoning: ‘We felt that this cohort had not been informed adequately enough and in a timely enough manner about this change being made to their status’, she writes via email. ‘As such, we decided to begin the experiment with the 2017 cohort’, meaning the students starting in September 2017.

After hearing the news, Gmelin happily shared the decision on Facebook: ‘This just goes to show that it does make sense to stand up for yourself’, he wrote. ‘First job, here I come.’

Nederlands

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