The experiment with PhD scholarship students started in 2016. These doctoral candidates aren’t employed by the university but are offered a grant – which means they are less expensive for the institution. The reception was underwhelming: the only university to prove enthusiastic about the scheme was the University of Groningen, which appointed 850 PhD scholarship students. Erasmus University Rotterdam appointed 15.

Education Minister Van Engelshoven asked the CHEPS research bureau to evaluate this PhD education scheme. But even before CHEPS published its interim report, she decided not to extend the experiment. There wasn’t enough interest, according to the Minister. This decision was criticised in the House of Representatives, by coalition partners CDA and VVD, among other parties.

‘Research far from solid’

The interim evaluation has since been received by the Ministry – although it hasn’t been published yet. According to PNN, CHEPS’s research was far from solid. The bureau mainly based itself on the findings offered by the University of Groningen. “When you’re conducting an independent study, you shouldn’t largely base yourself on data supplied by a direct stakeholder, which moreover wants to extend the experiment,” says PNN Chair Anne de Vries. It has become clear from a self-evaluation conducted by the University of Groningen, which was discussed in its University Council, that the institution wants to expand the experiment with another batch of 800 PhD scholarship students.

While CHEPS did speak with the administrators and students involved, PNN also doubts whether this was a completely objective process. A share of the respondents had actually been selected by the university, which had taken the initiative to contact them. In the invitation to these interviews, the university encouraged them to show the scholarship education scheme in a positive light. One of the University of Groningen’s administrators wrote: “We hope that a positive interim evaluation will inspire the political establishment to greenlight the expansion of the existing quota that we would like to put through. […] I know the current Minister seems to hold a negative view of the scholarship education scheme launched by her predecessor. That makes it even more important that this interim evaluation runs as intended.” This e-mail was forwarded to PNN by parties involved.

Very curious

In their interviews with CHEPS, the PhD scholarship students indicated that they were pressured to handle teaching tasks – even though they are not obliged to do so, in contrast with doctoral candidates with regular employment contracts. “Complaints of this kind merit a more widespread investigation. It is very curious that the bureau refrained from this”, says De Vries.

In addition, prior to the interviews, the university sent policy officers and administrators a list of subjects to help them prepare. But many of the potentially critical PhD students and their representatives were denied this opportunity, according to PNN.

According to the network for doctoral candidates, the researchers’ objectiveness was “highly questionable”. PNN contacted CHEPS a number of times to voice its concerns, but says that the bureau brushed aside its criticisms. PNN was asked to help organise a roundtable meeting. According to participating PhD scholarship students, CHEPS played a very guiding role in the discussions.

CHEPS doesn’t see what the fuss is about. Their research method was approved by the Ministry. CHEPS researchers Ben Jongbloed informs us via e-mail that PNN was allowed to review the draft version of the report. “At the time, they had the opportunity to offer confidential feedback (at our request), which they also did. As the research team, we have included PNN’s comments in the final version of the report.” Apart from this point, CHEPS declines to comment until the report has been officially published.