The House of Representatives was shocked to hear that hundreds of PhD candidatesdrop out without finishing their dissertations. MPs demand that universities improve supervision as soon as possible.

The Higher Education Press Agency reported last week that large numbers of PhDs are dropping out. Less than 50 percent of PhD candidates at some universities are able to obtain their doctorate in six years and a little over 50 percent of those in Rotterdam obtain their doctorate within this period, despite the fact that the government is trying to encourage universities to recruit more PhDs.

A waste of talent

“Absolutely shocking,” says MP Pieter Duisenberg of the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD). “If this is true, we’ve really got a problem.” He added that universities will soon have to come up with proposals for improving doctoral programmes in the same way as for bachelor and master programmes.

MP Mei Li Vos of the Labour Party (PvdA) agrees: “You’d think that universities with so many drop-outs would get their skates on and find out the reason for this double-quick,” she says. “It’s a real waste of talent and money.”

MP Michel Rog of the Christian Democrats (CDA) adds: “It’s really strange that there are such big differences between universities. I’d like to urge the academic community to investigate why some universities are doing well in this respect and others aren’t. You’d think the academic community would want to examine the cause of this.”

More PhD students

The figures give rise to the question of whether the government is right in making an effort to recruit more PhDs, as stated in its Vision on Science. “This is yet another aim proposed by a government that only looks at numbers instead of quality,” MP Jasper van Dijk of the Socialist Party (SP) comments with a sigh. “And quality is the root of the problem. PhD candidates should receive better supervision. We shouldn’t be so obsessed with numbers! This experiment with doctoral candidates should be scrapped at once.”

The fact is, allowing universities to experiment on inexpensive doctoral students is one of the government’s proposals to enable these universities to recruit more doctoral candidates. Up to now most of the doctoral candidates in the Netherlands have been in paid employment and the universities have to pay their pension contributions and national insurance contributions.

Although Mr van Dijk is completely opposed to the introduction of PhDs who are employed as students, Mr Duisenberg feels that the new system is ‘part of the solution’, since doctoral students can devote themselves entirely to their dissertations without having to bother about additional duties at work. Mr Duisenberg views another of his plans in the same light: he is advocating more professional doctorates, or, in other words, obtaining a doctorate in the business sector with research that will benefit the company. ‘This might increase their personal involvement in their research,’ he adds.

Mr Rog thinks we should not stop encouraging people to obtain a doctorate merely because so many PhD candidates drop out without finishing their dissertations. ‘We must do our best to find ways of enhancing success and preventing failure,’ he says. ‘And we should also seize the opportunity to examine other options for graduates to further their development. If this experiment with PhD students works out favourably, it might be a good idea to continue it. However, we aren’t going to force anyone. On the contrary, we’re giving them an additional opportunity.’ HOP