Most doctoral candidates in the Netherlands are employed by their university. They receive a regular salary and accrue pension entitlements. But some doctoral candidates are paid a fellowship rather than a salary – and are cheaper as a result.

In the old days, universities actually weren’t allowed to offer doctoral candidates a grant instead of a salary. But it happened now and then anyway. After years of lobbying – and a number of court cases – the previous coalition government decided to experiment: universities were invited to try out a fellowship system.


Starting in 2016, the universities were free to set up a total of 2,000 fellowships. They didn’t prove particularly interested in the scheme though. The only institution that was itching to take part was the University of Groningen, which received permission to take on 850 student fellows. Erasmus University Rotterdam also established 15 student fellowships.

The current experiment won’t be expanded any further, became clear from Minister Van Engelshoven’s answers to written questions from GroenLinks. She won’t be organising a second round for universities’ applications.

According to the system’s critics, student fellows are underpaid for their work. After all, doctoral candidates are all required to do research and write a thesis according to the same academic standards. So why pay one more than the other?

Proponents disagree: they believe earning your doctorate within a degree programme is different to earning it as a university employee. In the latter case, you spend more time teaching, for example. In addition, student fellowships are common enough in other countries – so why not in the Netherlands?

‘Equal work’

In her answers, Van Engelshoven defends the course taken by the government. “A doctoral candidate’s situation is fundamentally different to that of PhD student in the university’s employment,” she explains. This isn’t a case of ‘equal work’, in the Minister’s view – meaning that the candidates in question have no claim to ‘equal pay’.

The government plans to make an interim assessment of the experiment in the near future, with a final evaluation scheduled for late 2021. This should determine whether the universities are able to support a larger number of doctoral candidates via a fellowship programme, and which impact these schemes might have on research quality.


The previous Cabinet had actually hoped to change the existing legislation without further ado. The proposed changes would have let universities determine for themselves whether they treated their doctoral candidates as employees or students. After meeting with sharp criticism by the Council of State, the bill was scrapped by then Education Minister Bussemaker (PvdA), who subsequently set up an experiment to test the water. PvdA’s coalition partner VVD was particularly miffed by the Minister’s decision.