How to safeguard the quality of PhD dissertations and ensure that all PhD students receive proper supervision? Following the commotion regarding the so-called ‘PhD factory’ at Tilburg University, the rectors of the Dutch universities have released a joint statement.

Last year, a radio show called Argos reported that Tilburg University’s Faculty of Humanities awarded so many external PhD candidates doctorates that it appeared to be a PhD factory of sorts. One particular professor supervised no fewer than 77 PhD students in six years to doctorates, while other professors earned an additional income by supervising PhD students.

External PhD candidates are not members of a research group. They write their dissertations in their own time and hardly ever use the universities’ facilities. Nevertheless, universities are awarded an allowance for them, as they are for regular PhD students. Critics feel that external PhD candidates are being used as a revenue model, and they fear that some PhD students may not have deserved the doctorates they were awarded. The Dutch Lower House and the Minister for Education asked the universities for an explanation.

Compulsory registration

The rectors’ committee of the Association of Universities in the Netherlands (VSNU) took the criticism seriously. Considering the increase in the number of PhD students, the rectors said, it is vital that universities offer them all the same level of supervision and the same type of assessment. A committee made up of four rectors of Dutch universities drew up guiding principles for ‘Sound practice in the Dutch PhD system’.

The rectors feel that all types of PhD students must be clearly registered. At present, no nation-wide figures are available for external PhD candidates and PhD students on a scholarship. In addition, the four rectors feel that all PhD students must enrol in a graduate school or similar such institute affiliated with a university. This will ensure that they have a network and are able to attend training courses. The rectors want all external PhD candidates to apply for a position at a graduate school at least two years before they defend their dissertations.

The rectors also advocated the ‘four-eyes principle’, meaning that at least two supervisors or doctoral advisors must be involved in the supervision of PhD students. After the candidates have embarked on their PhDs, they will draw up a training and development schedule together. In addition, PhD students who are not employed by a university must have access to online services and the university’s complaints hotline.

More effective

Promovendi Netwerk Nederland (PNN), which promotes the interests of PhD students in the Netherlands, stated that the recommendation constitutes a major step forward. PNN is glad that the universities will give the various types of PhD students the same treatment from now on, but hopes that the committee’s next recommendation will contain more binding recommendations designed to tackle the perverse incentives inherent in the PhD system.

PNN believes it is ‘undeniably an improvement’ that external PhD candidates must now enrol in a graduate school affiliated with their university at least two years before defending their theses. However, PNN thinks it would be even better if they were expected to do so right when they first embark on their PhDs, just like other PhD students.

In addition, PNN likes the idea that the supervision of PhD students will be improved and professionalised. It feels that some training should be compulsory for all PhD supervisors who do not have a considerable and positive track record.

PNN was hoping that the committee would also use this opportunity to take a stance against the high level of pressure exerted on PhD supervisors by some universities to award even more doctorates. For instance, in the current system, full professors are required to supervise a minimum number of PhD students, and those who supervise a large number of PhD students receive a bonus.

Too bad

PNN is sorry that its proposal that the number of PhD students supervised by one person be capped was rejected. Some universities outside the Netherlands do cap the number of PhD students supervised by one academic, to prevent academics from accidentally ending up supervising an irresponsible number of PhD students.

PNN also feels that more should be done to prevent PhD students from receiving poor supervision. At the very least, PhD students should be given the right to find themselves a new supervisor if they are not happy with the supervision they are receiving. In particularly bad cases, supervisors should have their right to supervise PhD students revoked, as recently happened in Tilburg. If no such measures are implemented, the recommendations made by the rectors will be ‘ineffective’, PNN stated.

The four rectors will issue more recommendations this spring. In order to prevent inequality between the various types of PhD students and to prevent universities from having perverse incentives to accept more PhD students, a special working group will identify the allowances paid by universities to academics for supervising PhD students. Furthermore, the working group will formulate some guiding principles with regard to the way in which these allowances are to be used at the universities.