Student or staff member? Scholarship or salary? Court case could have far-reaching consequences

Are the MD/PhDs who were hired at the UMCG between 2016 and 2018 staff or students? That was the question the district court tried to answer on Tuesday in a case forty-eight PhDs started against the hospital.

The case could have significant impact on the UMCG and the UG. The UG has 1,500 positions as part of the Scholarship PhD Experiment, which enables the university to give PhDs a scholarship rather than a work contract.

However, if the court agrees with the MD/PhDs, there’s a chance other scholarship PhDs might go to court as well. This could have far-reaching financial consequences for the university.

That is why, on Tuesday, it almost looked like the UMCG was a charity organisation. Scholarship PhDs, former dean of Groningen Graduate Schools Lou de Leij argued, are not only free to do with their scholarship as they see fit, but it doesn’t benefit the UMCG one bit. ‘When they’re just starting out, PhDs can’t do anything’, he told the court. ‘We have to teach them everything.’ 


It’s true that they write academic articles. But, De Leij said: ‘We would’ve been better off writing them ourselves. It would have been quicker. The UMCG does benefit a little bit, but only because we put in so much effort.’

It’s therefore a good thing that the UMCG hired the MD/PhDs as part of the Scholarship PhD Experiment between 2016 and 2018. The MD/PhDs are part of a special programme in which they can get their PhD and finish their studies to become doctors at the same time. Their student status was much more fitting than the employee contracts PhDs were on before and after the experiment. 

Core task 

The MD/PhDs took offence to this, arguing that scientific research is a core task of the UMCG and that it’s the PhDs doing all the practical work.

‘There’s always a learning curve in the beginning’, one of them explained. ‘But the idea that the hospital grants us our publications… The quality of our work is absolutely to the benefit of the UMCG.’ The UMCG benefits from published articles and the UMCG benefits from us getting our PhD.’

Equal treatment

This exchange took place during the court session in which forty-eight MD/PhDs demanded treatment equal to their colleagues who were hired as employees before 2016 and after 2018. They argue that they do the exact same work as their staff member colleagues and that they have the same hierarchical relationship with their supervisors. 

Besides, they said, there was no substantive reason to determine whether a student was a scholarship PhD or an employed PhD. ‘It was based solely on when they were hired’, their lawyer Dino Jongsma told the court on Tuesday.

One of the MD/PhDs present talked about how a friend who was on the same track became an employee, while only a little bit earlier, she’d been given a scholarship contract. ‘My friend got an employee contract because there were no more scholarship PhD positions.’

Back pay

The forty-eight complainants demand an employee contract, any back pay owed, end-of-year and holiday bonuses. They also want to join the pension fund. The potential amounts due vary from five to fifteen thousand euros for each scholarship PhD.

But the UMCG refuses. Lawyer Damir Lacevic and former dean Lou de Leij argue that the PhDs are only of limited importance to the UMCG and that scientific research can hardly be called a core task.


The hospital also maintains that the MD/PhDs are clearly students: they have the freedom to write their own projects, aren’t accountable to any supervisors, and can do what they want. If they do run into problems with their supervisor, they can just switch. In other words, there is no hierarchical relationship.

Lacevic also argued that the fact that the MD/PhDs’ job closely resembles that of colleagues doesn’t make a difference. ‘What’s important here is that the UMCG has the power to impose obligations on the employed PhD candidates. Whether or not they actually use that power is immaterial.’

The court strives to make a decision before Christmas.


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