PhD students can enforce contract

If the RUG does not keep to the agreements of the bursary experiment, then PhD students can exercise their labour rights in court, as two lawyers previously stated in Trouw in early September. Minister Bussemaker has now confirmed that they are right.
By Peter Keizer / Translation by Alain Reniers

Employment lawyers Gerdin Boelens of Capra Advocaten and Marije Schneider of Pels Rijcken stated that there could be an issue of de facto employment (see the article on LexisNexis or Blendle, ed.). What may not seem to be an authoritative relationship at first glance could turn out to be completely different in practice, they say. They believe this is already the case, as a PhD student is subject to their doctoral thesis supervisor’s calendar.

In September, 160 PhD students started at the RUG as part of the PhD experiment. They are categorized as students instead of employees because they write their own research proposal, set their own working hours and do not have to accept assignments from their thesis supervisors.

However, if what occurs in practice deviates from the agreements set in writing, then the PhD student can demand a labour contract in court, minister of Education Bussemaker says. ‘This is also clear from the explanation of the experiment, which states that ‘the lack of an employer-employee relationship must be evident in the actual specifications of the relationship between universities and PhD students’, she says in reply to Parliamentary questions from D66 and SP.


According to the court, there is an employer-employee relationship if the PhD student performs work for a specific amount of time and receives wages for this work, and if there is a relationship of authority between the employee and employer. ‘If all three criteria are met for a PhD student, then there needs to be a corresponding labour contract’, Mrs Bussemaker says.

Should a PhD student demand a labour contract and win the case, then the university must pay pension and health insurance, which means the PhD student must pay income tax and national insurance contributions.


The RUG has ample experience with PhD students, previously called bursary students. In 2013, the Arnhem-Leeuwarden district court ruled that the bursary students were not UG employees.

One year later, the university – as a result of pressure from the tax authorities – halted the bursary student system. At the time, the RUG asked Minister Bussemaker to start the PhD students experiment; the first wave of students started in September. In the next eight years, the RUG wants to appoint 850 PhD students.


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