Erasmus University has decided that it will take part in the experiment with PhD candidates on a grant, but only with a very limited group. Over the coming three years, the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) will offer a place in the experiment to a maximum of fifteen PhD candidates from outside the EU.
Ordinarily, the university does not really support treating PhD candidates as students. However, the ISS in The Hague feels that the experiment could improve the position of PhD candidates from outside the EU. After initial scepticism, this week the University council agreed to the plan, on condition that the council and the Institute Council are fully involved at all stages and that the experiment at the ISS is not used to justify later decisions about whether or not to finance PhD candidates with grants. Four questions about student PhD candidates.
What does the experiment with PhD candidates on grants involve?
A number of Dutch universities have been lobbying for this for a while: funding PhD candidates with a grant. By giving PhD candidates the status of student, they are cheaper – as no social premiums are payable – so more people can get their PhD. This spring, the cabinet opened the door a notch with an experiment: over the next eight years, Dutch universities may allow a total of two thousand PhD candidates to get their PhDs as a student rather than as a member of staff. These student PhD candidates will be given a grant from the university’s profiling fund and will not be given a teaching role, for example.
What are the objections?
PhD candidates-organisations and trade unions have long been critical about the idea of giving PhD candidates a grant. They are worried that universities will use this as an opportunity to cut back on PhD candidates. The position of a student PhD candidate is worse than that of a member of staff. Once they have a grant, their secondary terms of employment disappear. They also fear a devaluation of the PhD programme, which is a reason why Erasmus MC will not be taking part in the experiment. PhD candidates who are also staff members have other duties through which they contribute to education and research. They can also prepare for the job market and improve their chances of an academic career. According to opponents, a division could be created between staff PhD candidates on the one side and second-rate student PhD candidates on the other. The latter would have fewer rights, worse terms of employment and few duties. And if the experiment was considered a success, opponents fear that the student PhD candidate might be regarded as a cheaper alternative for the staff PhD candidate.
So why has the university changed its mind about participating?
Because the ISS also sees advantages for PhD candidates from outside the EU, particularly developing countries. There are many of these at the ISS. Strict Dutch and European immigration laws make it very difficult to recruit someone from outside the EU as a trainee research assistant (AiO). PhD candidates from outside the EU pay for their own research, sometimes with a grant from their homeland, sometimes using their family’s savings. Such a grant is often not enough for them to afford to live in the Netherlands (it doesn’t cover housing, for example), but they are not allowed to receive other income. By participating in the experiment, the ISS feels that it can give PhD candidates from developing countries a better income than they have now.
Does the University Council now agree?
The University Council was initially sceptical about taking part in the experiment, and still is. The council feels it is undesirable that student PhD candidates should take the positions of staff PhD candidates, is concerned about the inequality between the two types of PhD candidates and about the secondary employment conditions of student PhD candidates. But the Council also recognises that a university grant could benefit PhD candidates from outside the EU. After several months of consultations, the University Council agreed, on condition that the Participation Council is closely involved and that the experiment does not justify later decisions about whether to finance PhD candidates with grants or not.