UMCG scholarship PhDs win on appeal: they are in fact employees

44 MD/PhDs who were hired as scholarship PhDs by the UMCG between 2016 and 2018 should be considered employees, according to the court of appeal in Leeuwarden.

The MD/PhDs took the UMCG to court five years ago. They felt they were employees, because they were doing the same work as PhD students who were hired on an employment contract before 2016 and after 2018. They felt they were therefore entitled to fringe benefits, such as holiday pay or a year-end bonus.

But the UMCG argued that the MD/PhD track, in which participants alternate between working on their PhD research and completing their medical studies, was simply a study track. The scholarship PhDs had much more freedom than employed PhDs and also did not have to take days off. There was therefore no relationship of authority, as in the case of employees. In January 2022, the Groningen court agreed with that.

Productive work

However, Tuesday’s ruling rejected that reasoning. The court in Leeuwarden feels that the MD/PhDs are in fact employees. The freedom to which the UMCG referred in its defence is only very limited, the court says. The scholarship PhDs had to apply for their positions, their research was embedded in the department, and a supervisor can force them to do certain work. Moreover, they were doing ‘productive work’ for the benefit of the UMCG.

The fact that the scholarship was paid from the Graduation Fund, which is meant to support students, does not matter, according to the judge. ‘For scholarship PhDs, it didn’t matter where the money came from. What mattered was that the UMCG paid.’

The fact that the scholarship PhDs had to register as students during the periods in which they completed their studies, makes it even more clear that they were therefore not students when they worked on their research.

Half a million

‘Everyone, including me, is overjoyed with the ruling’, says Dino Jongsma, the PhD students’ legal council during their years-long battle. ‘We now have until August to clarify what the exact claim will be.’

The scholarship PhDs – most of whom have already completed their tracks – are entitled to overdue holiday pay, unpaid days off, year-end benefits and any pension levies. This could cost the UMCG around half a million euros in total.

The ruling is potentially also of great importance for the university. After all, a total of 1,500 scholarship PhDs at the UG and UMCG took part in the experiment. And while the MD/PhDs often did not yet have a master’s degree, other scholarship PhDs did.

These scholarship PhDs have also been protesting the unequal treatment for years. It was a major reason why education minister Robbert Dijkgraaf decided in May of last year not to extend the experiment.

More lawsuits

Yet Jongsma warns not to inflate the ruling. ‘The UMCG acts as if this is about millions’, he says. ‘But this case is about these particular MD/PhDs, not about all the others.’

In short: if other scholarship PhDs believe they have a claim as well, they will have to file a lawsuit of their own.

Exactly how much money the judge will award the students, will only become clear after the summer. This is because the current verdict is an interim ruling, which merely clarifies that the scholarship PhDs should be seen as employees. The case will continue on 15 August.

The UMCG is surprised by the verdict, a spokesperson said. ‘We are now going to consider what this means for the UMCG and whether or not we want to appeal.’

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