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Minister stands firm: experiment with PhD candidates on a grant to end

Minister Van Engelshoven is standing by her decision to end the experiment with PhD…

The pilot study commenced in 2016. Up to two thousand PhD students (recipients of a scholarship rather than an actual employment contract) were allowed to take part in it. A total of 588 PhD scholarship students embarked on their PhDs at Groningen University in the first two years of the study, as well as 15 students at Erasmus University. EUR’s International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) was keen to join the experiment at the time to make it easier for students from outside the EU to get a PhD.

PhD scholarship students are students whose scholarships are paid by their universities from the government funding the universities receive. Regular PhD students are considered academic staff if their wages are paid from indirect government funding (e.g. NWO grants) or if they are hired to conduct research in association with the business community (contract research funding). Among other things, the PhD scholarship student experiment was supposed to result in the appointment of more PhD students.

No negative consequences

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Increasing resistance to experiment involving PhD students

Over 100 members of university participation councils and PhD student organisations have…

The experiment did indeed cause the number of PhD students to rise, according to the mid-term review carried out by research agency CHEPS. Between 2012 and 2018, the number of PhD students at Groningen University rose from 675 to 759, although the percentage of Dutch PhD students dropped from 53 to 44 per cent.

On the other hand, the number of PhD candidates employed by Groningen University has been reduced by about 75 since the commencement of the pilot study. However, CHEPS says that there has been “no unintended replacement of regular PhD students with PhD scholarship students”. According to the report, it was a “conscious decision born of policy” to appoint new PhD candidates mainly as government-funded PhD scholarship students, since they are cheaper, meaning that more PhD students can be appointed with the same budget.

However, the Minister expressed some criticism in her response, saying that the experiment was not supposed to result in the appointment of fewer university-employed PhD students. “Therefore, I am critical of this trend, and will incorporate it into the final evaluation.”


The investigators also looked at the freedom PhD scholarship students have to decide on the conduct of their own research. At Groningen University, 37 per cent of PhD scholarship students were given nearly free rein, versus 12 per cent of university-employed PhD students. However, the level of freedom granted to the PhD candidates depends on the type of field in which they are active, with PhD students in social and legal sciences and in the humanities experiencing greater freedom than their counterparts in other fields.

Unfortunately, PhD scholarship students are dissatisfied with their income. They feel that they conduct the same type of research as university-employed PhD students and therefore should receive the same level of remuneration. In addition, they sometimes feel they do not receive the right level of appreciation.

Furthermore, some PhD scholarship students regret the fact that they aren’t allowed to teach, although others are forced to teach even though they don’t want to or aren’t supposed to. The Minister feels that the latter is worrying. PhD scholarship students should not be required to teach. At the same time, though, the Minister warned that university-employed PhD students will experience an increased workload if PhD scholarship students do not do any teaching.