The UMCG scholarship PhDs have headed back to court. On Wednesday, they appealed the notion that they are students. They say they’re employees.
A group of forty-four MD/PhDs has been fighting their employer for the past five years. They feel they’re employees instead of students, because they’re doing the same work as other PhD candidates. The only difference is that they were hired between 2016 and 2018 as part of the scholarship PhD experiment. As such, they receive a scholarship, which is much lower than a salary, and no fringe benefits. But the UMCG says they got quite a bit of freedom in return.
The MD/PhDs, who are part of a special project where they’re doing a regular programme as well as a PhD programme, disagree. According to them, doing the same work as employees and having a subordinate relationship with a supervisor means they’re employees, too.
The court dismissed this argument in January 2022. De MD/PhDs do not have a labour contract.
The court also said the PhDs were in a ‘favourable position’ and weren’t faced with the same issues as some other groups ‘that sought protection under labour laws’, such as meal delivery drivers or international workers at the Groningen shipyards.
During the appeal hearing, lawyer for the PhDs Peter Volk, emphasises the comparison to employed PhDs. There’s also more emphasis on how the PhDs are ‘embedded’ at the UMCG, previous rulings proved the importance of this concept. ‘Take, for instance, the recent case against Deliveroo’, he says.
‘They didn’t have a choice’, he said during the hearing. They were fully dependent on their doctoral adviser, who needed to agree to everything. The contracts and forms involved also extensively detail which tasks had to be performed, and when. ‘They had none of the freedoms the UCMG claims they have.’
Even the PhDs’ registration form states that their research needs to be embedded in the UMCG’s research, he argued. ‘You might think that was quite clever, but it’s the UMCG that actually used that word.’
UMCG lawyer Damir Lacevic has a different view. He says there’s no way the PhDs are employees. ‘Please note that they were master students who did this on the side’, he said during the hearing.
On top of that, the PhDs concept of a working relationship is ‘contrived’. ‘They’re trying to create a relationship that simply doesn’t exist’, he said. ‘This isn’t about a company trip or a Christmas bonus. From the start, they’ve focused on the disparity between themselves and employed PhDs. But you can’t say that someone who wants to get their PhD in two years while also doing a medical internship has a working relationship.’
The scholarship PhDs are looking at it the wrong way, he argues: it’s not that they are employees, but that employed PhDs – including those hired after 2018 – are actually students. ‘We can write down that it is an employment contract they have, but in the legal sense it is not. That is the reality.’
If the PhDs win their appeal, it would cost the UMCG, as the MD/PhDs would then be entitled to back pay, an end-of-year bonus, and holiday pay. The UMCG would also have to sign them up for its pension fund. The potential amounts due vary from five to fifteen thousand euros per person.
That’s why there is no question of the UMCG settling with the scholarship PhDs, according to Lacevic. ‘We’ve calculated that it would cost us half a million. And if everyone then joins in – worst case scenario – it would be between 8 and 12 million. That money could be better spent.’
After all, a total of 1,500 scholarship PhDs at the UG and UMCG took part in the experiment. And where the MD/PhDs often did not yet have a master’s degree, the other scholarship PhDs did. And they too have been protesting their unequal treatment for years. This was an important reason for why education minister Robbert Dijkgraaf decided not to extend the experiment in May of last year.
According to him, there was ‘no convincing added value’ to the experiment. Another reason was the ‘poor support’.
The court is expected to make a decision on June 13.