At Groningen University, hundreds of PhD students are students on a scholarship rather than university employees, which makes it considerably cheaper for universities to ‘hire’ them. Erasmus University Rotterdam, too, has a small group of PhD scholarship students. This new arrangement is an experiment, designed to determine whether the PhD students are OK with the terms of their agreement.

Promovendi Netwerk Nederland (PNN), an interest group representing PhD students in the Netherlands, said that the students are not at all happy with the arrangement, since their terms of employment are less advantageous than regular PhD students’. The Minister for Education wasn’t very happy either, to the point where she wished to terminate the experiment prematurely a while ago, but following some complaints filed by MPs, she changed her mind and said she would not make any decisions until an ‘interim evaluation’ had been performed.

Just fine

This interim evaluation was performed in 2019 and actually drew a reasonably positive picture. The conclusion of the evaluation was that things were going just fine. This being the case, the Minister allowed a new group of PhD scholarship students to embark on their research projects, even if she was pressured into doing so by the Lower House.

However, PNN was highly critical of the interim evaluation, which caused MPs to ask more questions. The Minister promised that an independent party would investigate the arrangement – which is to say: it would assess the interim evaluation.

The matter gained even more urgency when hundreds of PhD scholarship students and sympathisers signed a petition against the new arrangement for PhD students. They asked for the new arrangement to be abolished, preferably retroactively.

However, this will not be happening any time soon, judging from a memo sent by Minister Van Engelshoven to the Lower House on Monday, which stated that while the independent evaluation did pinpoint certain flaws in the 2019 interim evaluation, there was no reason to pull the plug from the experiment prematurely.

Adverse effects

The independent evaluation was performed by Nel Verhoeven (an independent research consultant) and Wilfried Admiraal, a professor of education at Leiden University. They wrote that the initial evaluation mainly lacked ‘transparency with regard to the data pertaining to Groningen University’. In other words, they wondered if there was a bias in those data.

However, they found that a discussion with the people who performed the initial evaluation gave them all the information they needed. They said the new arrangement “did not seem to have severely negatively affected” the university’s research environment.

The final evaluation of the arrangement will be performed in 2021. This will demonstrate whether, as far as politicians are concerned, the benefits of the arrangement are great enough for PhD scholarships to be incorporated into the law. The politicians do seem to sympathise with the PhD students: at the Lower House’s request, a second cohort of PhD scholarship students will embark on their doctoral research this September. They will all conduct their research at Groningen University.

To the extent possible

In other words, this particular cohort of PhD students will only have conducted a few months’ research by the time the final evaluation is done. The Minister for Education has promised that their experiences will be incorporated into the final evaluation, ‘to the extent possible’.