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Faculties: It is what it is

Curtains for the PhD experiment

For years, the UG fought for the ability to designate PhD candidates as students rather than employees. But now that it’s finally curtains for the experiment, not everyone is sorry to see it go. ‘We’ll also be rid of the unpleasant side effects.’
7 June om 16:27 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 8 June 2022
om 13:24 uur.
June 7 at 16:27 PM.
Last modified on June 8, 2022
at 13:24 PM.

Door Christien Boomsma

7 June om 16:27 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 8 June 2022
om 13:24 uur.

By Christien Boomsma

June 7 at 16:27 PM.
Last modified on June 8, 2022
at 13:24 PM.

Christien Boomsma

Achtergrondcoördinator en wetenschapsredacteur Volledig bio » Background coordinator and science editor Full bio »

‘My first reaction was to be relieved’, says Martha Buit. ‘Finally, a change! For the longest time, I didn’t feel like we were being heard at the university.’

Buit isn’t just a scholarship PhD candidate at the Faculty of Law, she’s also one of the writers of the manifesto, signed by 239 scholarship PhDs, which demanded an immediate end to the Scholarship PhD experiment, with which the government enabled universities to hire PhD candidates by paying them a scholarship of 1,840 euros a month and not granting them employee status. 

The scheme was a cheaper alternative to employed PhDs and allowed more people to graduate. But the experiment also had a dark side: employed PhDs and scholarship PhDs performed the same tasks while they were not being paid the same. The fact that scholarship PhDs had more freedom than their employed colleagues and were allowed to write their own research proposal did not outweigh this. 

‘They said our complaints were mere due to an issue with information’, Buit remembers. ‘Other than that, the board made out like it was all about the money for us. But it was so much more than that. We also want more people to graduate with a PhD, but not at the cost of everything else.’

Lack of support

Education minister Robbert Dijkgraaf agrees with her. After a final evaluation of the experiment by research agency ResearchNed, he said he would not be codifying the concept of ‘scholarship PhD’ by law. He concluded that the experiment had led to ‘camps’. 

‘The evaluation has shown no convincing added value, and the lack of support for the experiment is an important factor in my decision to not continue the experiment after 2024. The addition to the system of scholarship PhDs as a category of PhD candidates doesn’t match my aspiration for more peace and space in the academic system or a better position for all researchers.’

This has been going on for so long. Now we know where we stand

It’s obvious that Buit the scholarship PhD candidate is happy with the decision. But faculty board members don’t seem particularly sorry about the decision, either. ‘This has been going on for so long’, says Faculty of Science and Engineering board member Bert Poolman. ‘No decision is often worse than a bad decision. Now we know where we stand.’

Sure, he says, it’s a bummer. ‘We’d obviously be able to do more research if the same money allows us to hire an extra person.’ The experiment also enabled him to give more people the opportunity to do the research they wanted to do.  

Discomfort

But the dissatisfaction and people’s feelings of unfairness that led to discussions were all too real. As group leader, Poolman recognises the discomfort caused by having different kinds of PhD candidates in one research group. ‘We’d have a lab full of people who were all PhD candidates, but who weren’t being paid equally. That caused friction’, he says. 

Sometimes, the order in which financing was received determined who was paid a scholarship and who was paid a salary. ‘It was fairly random. The minister’s decision put an end to those unwanted side effects.’

Law faculty vice dean Ramses Wessel isn’t particularly unhappy, either. At his faculty, people’s feelings of underappreciation were a ‘sore spot’. ‘We always tried to include the scholarship candidates when it came to Christmas hampers and Sinterklaas celebrations and so on, and we were as accommodating as possible, but let’s be honest: there is still that difference in pay. And they all knew that, too.’

For that exact reason, Graduate School of Economics and Business director Rian Drogendijk was a little reluctant to hire scholarship PhDs. ‘We never fully went for it’, she says. 

No great setbacks

The experiment’s advantages were evident. But she also realised that the differences meant the scholarship candidates didn’t always feel good about their position.  ‘Nobody wants that.’ That’s why she thinks the minister’s decision is ‘understandable’. 

The consequences can be overcome. FEB didn’t have all that many scholarship PhDs to start with, so she’s not expecting any ‘great setbacks’, apart from a decline in scholarship candidates. The faculty has set money aside for people who need employment at the end of the experiment. 

We’ve never been in a better financial position

The minister’s decision doesn’t have much of a financial impact elsewhere, either. Not only did various faculties prepare for this decision because they had been expecting it, but the government has also announced it will invest 700 million euros in higher education. The announced sector plans and ‘rolling grants’, which allow researchers to do research for their entire career without being beholden to anyone, would ease some of the pain. 

And while some departments will end up spending more money on hiring PhD candidates, Poolman thinks the time is ripe. ‘We’ve never been in a better financial position’, he says. ‘That’s because of the huge student numbers.’

While those numbers are causing problems in terms of staff and available space, they also lead to an influx of money, says Poolman. ‘That’s given us room that we didn’t have twenty years ago. So I don’t think our position will be at risk.’

Steps

The law faculty isn’t expecting any issues, either, says Wessel. According to him, it’s often difficult to find the funds to sponsor research in the field of law. ‘So it was nice to have something to expand our little army of researchers.’

But the faculty has already taken steps to overcome a decline in the number of PhD candidates. At the start of the year, the faculty created twelve positions that were funded with their own money. ‘Perhaps we’ll do another round, just to keep it going. I also think there are opportunities for collaboration with the government’, he says, ‘as well as private partners.’ 

He’s also hopeful about the opportunities that the interdisciplinary studies at the new UG Schools will present. A large donation by an anonymous person to the Ubbo Emmius Fund led to the creation of fifty PhD positions at four schools over the next five years, and the law faculty is one of the participants.

Missed opportunity

Some administrators will be sorry to see the end of the experiment, however. One of them is rector magnificus Cisca Wijmenga, who championed the experiment for years. In a response, she emphasised that the experiment’s goal to have more people graduate with a PhD had been met and that the UG had tackled many of the issues. ‘Because of that, it’s a shame that PhD education will come to an end.’ 

It’s no use fighting windmills

At the UMCG, which, together with FSE, has the most scholarship PhDs, their spokesperson agrees with Wijmenga, having ‘little to add’. 

Faculty of Behavioural and Social Sciences dean Kees Aarts thinks cancelling the experiment is a missed opportunity to make a necessary change to the PhD system. ‘You could see support dwindling’, he says. ‘It’s no use fighting windmills.’

Wrong approach

He did notice that two different kinds of PhD candidates together wasn’t a great idea. But he still believes in the essence of the experiment: that PhD candidates should be students rather than employees, as is often the case in other countries.

‘The approach here was all wrong’, he says. ‘There was no clear objective to the experiment, and for too long, there was too much uncertainty about the two separate systems.’

It’s clear that this decision benefits the PhD candidates most of all. ‘But we have to be mindful of the macro consequences. A scholarship candidate costs 200,000 euros, while an employed one costs 300,000.’

While he, too, admits that the financial consequences aren’t the biggest concern right now, this might present a problem at the same time. There is currently no financial pressure to change the PhD system. ‘If there had been more pressure, perhaps there would have been a bigger incentive to change things. Perhaps we could have found a way to make it cheaper.’

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