There are many types of PhD candidates. Many of them are employed by a university and receive a salary. However, there are also people who write PhD dissertations on top of their day jobs, or in their free time. These are called external PhD students.

The amount of the PhD bonus awarded to universities does not depend on what type of PhD student obtained the doctorate. The government awards the same amount for every doctorate conferred: approximately €80,000. PNN has drawn up an action plan for an overhaul of the PhD research system, designed to change this system.

PhD factory

PNN calls the PhD bonus a ‘perverse incentive’. According to De Vries, Tilburg University is a good example of the consequences of this bonus. A radio show called Argos recently claimed that this university had turned into a PhD factory.

De Vries thinks there are more universities like that. “Tilburg was more or less a random example. Some universities have established entire centres dedicated to recruiting external PhD candidates. Some of these candidates even pay tuition, meaning the universities need to spend even less money on them.”

A brief search on the Internet led us to Leiden University’s Dual PhD Centre, where people who conduct PhD research on top of their day job pay an annual fee of €7,500. So yes, these things do happen, although they certainly are not the norm.

“A ‘supervision fee’ for external PhD candidates is hardly exceptional,” the university stated in a response. According to the university’s spokesperson, PhD research should be regarded as the third stage in a person’s tertiary education, the first two being the bachelor and master degrees. And it is customary for students to pay tuition fees. The fee has its advantages too – external PhD students do not embark on their research projects lightly, and are less likely to quit before obtaining their doctorate.

Moreover, the university stated, universities are not certain to profit from greater numbers of PhD students, because the flat rate for each doctorate conferred was abolished in 2017. In the current system, 20 percent of the nation’s research budget is divided in proportion to the number of doctorates conferred. Universities could seek to earn more money by increasing their number of doctorates, but if all other universities do the same, the distribution factor will remain exactly the same.

PNN feels that the way in which the government funds PhD students must be overhauled. The interest group thinks it would be a good idea for the government to award larger bonuses for expensive PhD students and smaller bonuses for cheaper PhD students.

Revenue model

And we are not just talking about external PhD students, says De Vries. “Foreign PhD candidates who come here on a grant are relatively cheap, but universities receive the same bonus for them that they do for other PhD students. And what costs do universities actually incur when a PhD student receives an NWO grant? PhD students should not be considered a ‘revenue model’.”