Scholarship PhDs will receive the same ‘pay rise’ as employed PhDs. However, this is considerably less than the 9.6 percent their contract promised them.
The scholarships were increased by 4 percent in September. ‘It’s the same percentage UG employees received as their salary increase’, the university said.
It sounds great, but the scholarship programme’s conditions say the amount will be adjusted annually based on the consumer price index as published by Statistics Netherlands (Centraal Bureau voor de Statistiek, or CBS). In 2020, scholarships were increased by 1.19 percent and 1.9 percent in 2021.
However, inflation adjustment on the reference date of April of this year was 9.6 percent; considerably higher than the 4 percent the scholarship PhDs are getting.
Open to interpretation
According to PhD scholarship programme project manager Marjan Koopmans, the UG isn’t doing anything wrong. She does confirm that the conditions state the university will follow the CBS index. ‘But it doesn’t specify which one. There are many different indices, and the conditions are open to interpretation. In this case, the university’s board of directors has decided on a pay rise of 4 percent.’
Many organisations that normally follow the consumer price index decided to deviate from it because of the high level of inflation, she argues. ‘Such as commuter traffic, as well as tuition fees for 2023-2024. It’s such an exorbitant increase that it’s impossible.’
Björn de Kruijf with the Groningen Graduate Interest Network (GRIN) says PhD students are particularly unhappy. ‘People were worried they wouldn’t be getting what they were contractually owed, which is exactly what happened.’ According to him, the contract wasn’t open to interpretation when employed PhDs were receiving their salary increase. ‘It’s remarkable that it is now.’
But the scholarship PhDs aren’t happy. They’ve been complaining about their position for a while now, since they do the same work as their employed colleagues but get paid less, don’t get an end-of-year bonus, and don’t get a pension.
Various PhD students previously complained to the Promovendi Network Netherlands (PNN) and GRIN about the sudden deviation from the inflation adjustment. Koopmans also says the PhD Scholarship Desk received ‘one or two complaints’.
‘One moment, we’re not employees when it comes to rights and privileges, and the next, we are when it comes to adjusting our scholarships’, says one scholarship PhD from the Faculty of Science and Engineering who wants to remain anonymous. He thinks few PhD students are sufficiently aware of their rights.
PNN president Anneke Kastelein calls the university actions ‘worrisome’. ‘They can’t decide to not honour what’s in the contract. Scholarship PhDs were already paid well below a regular salary.’
UG professor of labour law Saskia Peters also questions the university’s actions. Even if there are various ‘indices’, she can’t imagine they average out at 4 percent.
‘Besides, they can’t just switch indices just because a different one happens to have a lower percentage this year. In legal terms, they’ve used that first index “on a consistent basis”’.
While scholarship students don’t officially have an employment contract at the UG, but because the relationship is at least ‘reminiscent of employment’, it could be argued that labour law applies to the relationship between the university and the PhDs, Peters thinks. ‘The university even makes a comparison between the two groups by saying they treat the scholarship PhDs the same as employees.’
The university isn’t allowed to unilaterally change the conditions of the contract, ‘especially not something as important as the salary’. A company that’s in financial trouble can require employees to sacrifice their pay in an emergency, but ‘the university isn’t about to collapse’.
In short, there’s something fishy going on, the professor concludes. ‘The UG can’t have it both ways. If I were a PhD student, I’d agree with the 4 percent, but only if the university would then treat us like employees retroactively.’
Another sore point is that it concerns the university’s weakest ‘employees’, with the lowest income. Even if their scholarships were properly adjusted in accordance with inflation, scholarship PhDs would still be a lot cheaper than the employed PhDs, who earn more and enjoy more rights, says Peters.
‘Don’t forget, inflation adjustment is included in their contracts for a reason. Out of all the “employees”, they have the hardest time making a living. Sure, it would cost the university money, but if a judge had to weigh interests, I think they would rule in favour of the PhD students.’