University
Illustration by Kalle Wolters

How the UG influenced the PhD experiment review

The hand from above

Illustration by Kalle Wolters
Researchers from Twente got a lashing last week for failing to report that the UG had tried to influence their review into the scholarship PhD experiment. But what did the UG do exactly? ‘They sacrificed academic integrity for political gains.’
29 September om 12:01 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 29 September 2021
om 12:42 uur.
September 29 at 12:01 PM.
Last modified on September 29, 2021
at 12:42 PM.

Door Christien Boomsma

29 September om 12:01 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 29 September 2021
om 12:42 uur.

By Christien Boomsma

September 29 at 12:01 PM.
Last modified on September 29, 2021
at 12:42 PM.

Christien Boomsma

Achtergrondcoördinator en wetenschapsredacteur
Volledig bio

Achtergrondcoördinator en wetenschapsredacteur
Full bio

‘I know the current minister doesn’t look favourably upon the […] PhD education programme’, Groningen Graduate Schools dean Lou de Leij wrote in 2019 to the people who’d been selected for an evaluation meeting about the PhD Scholarship Experiment. ‘Therefore, it’s very important that this interim evaluation goes well.’ 

A student from the research master, who had ambitions to do a PhD, had also been invited. ‘I would like to ask for your help with this’, De Leij wrote the student.

Damn, thought Promovendi Network Netherlands (PNN) vice chair Reinder Broekstra when he read the email for himself. I knew it! How much freedom do students have when their potential employers talk to them like that?

Surprisingly positive

The members of the PhD organisation had had their objections to the review, which would determine whether the controversial PhD Scholarship Experiment would be cancelled or not. While the PNN had heard complaints from students about inequality and a lack of appreciation, the self-evaluations coming out of the UG were surprisingly positive. 

‘I thought it was interesting that they hadn’t set up a focus group’, says Broekstra. ‘If they wanted to create independence, I would’ve expected them to have some sort of buffer.’

All we could do was trust that the researchers were doing their work in good conscience

Reinder Broekstra, former PNN vice chair

But that was just a gut feeling, and he was happy that the mandatory, independent interim evaluation of the experiment was finally under way. The review would finally show what was what. 

Except the preparations for the review had been done completely in consultation with the UG, the most important interested party. The researchers were said to base their work on the same, positive surveys that had been set out before. ‘We also heard that people had doubts about how the people who were being interviewed had been selected’, says Broekstra. ‘But we weren’t there, so all we could do was trust that the researchers were doing their work in good conscience.’

Integrity

But then that email surfaced. That was the smoking gun. The clue that something was going on after all. ‘The UG tried to influence the results of the review’, he says. He is not happy in the knowledge. ‘As a researcher, I was disappointed. I expected academic integrity from these researchers.’ 

The PNN talked to the researchers at the Centre for Higher Education Policy Studies (CHEPS) at the University of Twente. They understood their concerns and adjusted the review by conducting extra interviews. But the PNN had lost their faith, and they wanted the researchers to report the UG’s attempts at influencing the proceedings. 

When CHEPS made no such report, the PNN board complained to the Committee for Academic Integrity in Twente, which sided with them. But the board of directors at UT downplayed the severity of the integrity committee’s characterisation of the events, changing it from ‘questionable behaviour’ to ‘a slight mistake’. The PNN went to the Netherlands Board on Research Integrity (LOWI) to file an appeal.

‘The lack of transparency qualifies as more than just a slight mistake’, the LOWI wrote in its verdict. ‘It’s an intrusive attempt by [a party with a vested interest in the review] to influence the results of the policy review.’

The scholarship PhD experiment, which started in 2016, enabled universities to pay PhD candidates a scholarship rather than hire them as employees. This saved them a hundred thousand euros for each candidate, as they received five hundred fewer euros a month than employed PhDs. At the same time, universities still received 70,000 euros for each graduated PhD students, whether they were employed or received a scholarship. 

This allowed more people to get their PhD and universities had more people to do their academic handiwork for them. The universities would supplement the small external scholarships of foreign PhDs to the level of Dutch PhD students.

The UG signed up for the experiment, requesting 850 PhD student positions. The only other university that was interested, the Erasmus in Rotterdam, only went for fifteen spots. A few years later, the UG had seventy-five fewer employee positions, but the number of PhD candidates went up by 163 to nearly eight hundred.

More PhDs

There’s no question that the UG was invested in a positive outcome. ‘The future of the UG is at stake’, said board president Jouke de Vries in December of 2019, when the university council was discussing whether to continue the experiment. The UG had invested a lot in the experiment, which earmarked PhD candidates as students, which meant they were cheaper. The experiment meant more people could do a PhD. 

Yes, I sent that email

Lou de Leij, former dean of Graduate Schools Groningen

But there was criticism, too. Some said the experiment was a ‘race to the bottom’ and student PhDs were starting to complain about unequal treatment. People asked Parliamentary questions and even the education minister started having her doubts.

The evaluation was of great importance, De Leij fully admits. But that doesn’t mean he influenced the review, he says. ‘Yes, I sent that email. It was sent out to everyone who was being interviewed in the first round. One of the Graduate Schools directors suggested I invite that master student. I didn’t even know him.’

Help

Looking back, sending that email himself may not have been the smartest thing to do. But he just wanted to help. The email needed to be ‘proper and thorough’, explaining the political situation and emphasising the importance that the evaluation ‘go well’. ‘The evaluation had already been delayed by a year and that had caused problems. We really wanted it.’

Bigwigs like FSE dean Jasper Knoester and former rector magnificus Elmer Sterken also received the email. ‘It’s not like they’re easily intimidated.’ He did want to make sure they knew how important it was to do the interview. ‘They’re very busy.’

The email wasn’t the only way the UG could influence the review. Another issue is the way CHEPS worked with the Groningen university. The UG or, in this case, Lou de Leij, recommended people for the interviews: the deans at some of the larger faculties, for example, or directors at large research schools, the rector magnificus, or the university council chair.

Suggestions

‘In the end, they mainly talked to the higher-ups, but you’d expect more input from the people the review is actually about’, says Broekstra. ‘In other words, the PhD students themselves.’

But it’s very normal, says Lou de Leij, to first talk to the stakeholders in reviews like these. It was only natural that Ben Jongbloed, who works at CHEPS, came to Groningen to elaborate on his assignment for the review. ‘He needed to talk to the people in charge and he asked me for suggestions. I only obliged. But I also suggested he talk to Broekstra with the PNN. I did that. I didn’t have to, but I thought it’d be wise.’

The general atmosphere at the Graduate Schools was one of damage control

Pauline Westerman, former director at the Graduate school of Law

The point being made is that the final decision was entirely up to CHEPS. In an email to PNN, Jongbloed wrote that De Leij had set up ‘a nice programme’, but ‘that it’s our decision and not Lou’s.’

People outside the PNN also had concerned about the way people were selected for interviews. Pauline Westerman, then-director the Graduate School of Law: ‘I was scandalised when I heard who’d been invited.’ The representative of the faculties of arts and social sciences that CHEPS talked to was ‘obedient’ to them, she says. ‘Someone connected to the office of the university, someone they could trust. The general atmosphere at the Graduate Schools was one of damage control.’

PhD representatives

She didn’t think the PhD students were being properly heard. The representatives of these groups, people from PhD interest representative GRIN and activity club Gopher, weren’t included enough. ‘They should have talked to people from the PhD councils, who actually knows what goes on in the PhD community.’

In the end, CHEPS talked to Westerman herself. They also created focus group: they organised a meeting with a total of twelve PhD scholarship students, who’d been recruited with the intervention of PNN. ‘We wrote a letter in consultation with CHEPS’, Broekstra emphasises. ‘It was important that we did do it right.’

However, De Leij has his doubts. ‘PNN picked those PhD students. Just to be clear, I’m not maligning them, but it’s not outside the realm of possibility that some of those students might not be too happy about the experiment.’

What also stuck in his craw was the fact that PNN went crying to the minister every time they didn’t like something. ‘She was receptive to that and would ask CHEPS to do things differently. We’re not the ones who complained and tried to influence things by going to the client; they are.’

It was them

Then there are the earlier, positive survey the UG commissioned from the research group for higher education. They formed the basis of the ‘PhD students’ opinion in the review. However, CHEPS didn’t do any extra research, using only the answers from the earlier surveys. 

According to CHEPS boss Barend van der Meulen, that was enough. ‘We already had a survey. It wouldn’t have been smart to do it all over again. 

We’re especially seeing a lack of transparency concerning the data about the UG

peer review committee CHEPS review

CHEPS also sent their preparatory questions for the interview to all the higher-ups they talked, but didn’t send anything to the PhD representatives. ‘That means they didn’t have as much time to prepare for their interviews’, says Broekstra.

The researchers didn’t think it was necessary. ‘In the case of people like research master students or the university council chair, it was enough if they broadly knew what the interview was going to be about. […] We didn’t want to burden people too much.’

Trust

Van der Meulen, who isn’t part of the review, emphasises that CHEPS stands by their review. ‘The entire methodology was evaluated and approved by a peer review committee. Let’s trust in that process.’

However, that committee also said that the review did occasionally miss sufficient information to assess the academic quality of the experiment. ‘We’re especially seeing a lack of transparency concerning the data about the UG’, their report said.

Van der Meulen confirms the attempt at influencing the review, but didn’t include that in the report, he says, because he wanted to ‘keep politics out of the review and to prevent the discussion focusing solely on that instead of the results’.

He regrets the fact that this decision is being called ‘questionable’. Just like he regrets the fact that it’s about the politics after all. 

Nerve

But the fact remains that the review ultimately led education minister Van Engelshoven to decide to continue the PhD scholarship experiment in April of last year. The UG opted to add 650 extra positions, while the Erasmus University in Rotterdam pulled out of the experiment entirely. 

The final review is expected late November and will be performed by ResearchNed rather than CHEPS. 

They have a lot of nerve making us the bad guy

Lou de Leij, former dean of Graduate Schools

The people involved in the interim review are left feeling disappointed. ‘Hand to God’, says De Leij, ‘I didn’t try to influence anything. As an academic, integrity is important to me, and I’ve always acted honourably. I generally have a lot of respect for the LOWI. But they neglected to get to the bottom of the issue, while simultaneously assuming that everything PNN said was true. They have a lot of nerve making us the bad guy.’

Broekstra thinks what happened is awful. ‘They sacrificed academic integrity for political gains’, he says. ‘It’s not about who’s right. We’re all academics, all beholden to the same values.’

As a UG employee, he’s disappointed in the role the UG played. ‘Apparently there’s a difference between academics and managers. Academics I trust.’

Board of directors’ respond

The UG’s board of directors didn’t want to respond to the LOWI’s report and its conclusions. ‘The board of directors has taken note of the LOWI’s conclusions and their judgement based on the investigation into the interim review’, they write. ‘The board awaits the final review that will determine whether the experiment is viable. We trust that all parties concerned, including the UG, will be equally involved in this final review.’

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