Investigative journalism platform Follow The Money discovered that the PhD candidates are receiving a monthly allowance of 1,350 euros from the Chinese Scholarship Council (CSC), an organisation that supports Chinese PhD candidates abroad. This allowance is not the same in every country, but depends on local prices.
The allowance in the Netherlands is well below the statutory minimum wage of 1,750 euros gross a month (around 1,690 euros net). PhD candidates in paid employment at the university receive a minimum of 2,541 euros gross a month for similar work, the difference being that they also have teaching duties alongside their research work. In addition, no tax is due on the Chinese scholarship.
‘If we were to top up the PhD candidates’ income, income tax would be due on the top-up’
In contrast to the universities of Groningen, Maastricht and Amsterdam, EUR and other universities are not topping up the PhD candidates’ income. As the universities pointed out to Follow The Money, doing so could give rise to all manner of tax complications.
EUR confirms that this is the reason for not topping up the PhD candidates’ income. “PhD candidates who are supported by the CSC do not have an employment relationship with EUR. If we were to top up the PhD candidates’ income, income tax would be due on the top-up. This would lead to significant financial and administrative consequences for both the PhD candidates themselves and the university. It could also create the impression of an employment situation. However, EUR does not have the financial resources to employ these PhD candidates”, a spokesperson explains.
Financial difficulties post-PhD
Yayi Zhang, a CSC PhD candidate at the Erasmus School of Law, says that she had no problems coping on the scholarship of 1,350 euros. “That’s partly because my rent is relatively low – around 500 euros including gas, water and electricity. That leaves plenty of money for clothes, sports or occasionally eating out”, says Zhang.
That said, she is aware of cases where EUR PhD candidates did not manage to complete their research within four years and therefore ended up in financial difficulties. This is because entitlement to the CSC allowance ends after four years. Zhang claims she also knows of cases where EUR started charging tuition fees after the fourth year. The EUR spokesperson denies this. “PhD candidates on scholarships work here on hosting agreements, which means they aren’t students. There is also no central policy that says they have to pay any contribution after their contract.” Er is ook geen centraal beleid dat zegt dat bursalen na hun periode als promovendus een bijdrage moeten betalen.”
No overview of costs
Every successfully completed PhD lands the university a bonus of 83,000 euros. Although Dutch universities dismiss any suggestion that they are profiting from the CSC PhD candidates, Follow the Money did not obtain an overview of costs to substantiate the universities’ claim.
EUR has also said that it is not in a position to provide such an overview. “There isn’t a revenue model”, says the spokesperson. “The 83,000 euros is designed to cover costs associated with working with these students and PhD candidates. Costs could include such things as the curriculum, supervision and facilities used. There can be a huge variation in costs for each programme.”
Worries about termination of CSC scheme
Zhang feels it would be a nice gesture if EUR were to decide to top up the Chinese PhD candidates’ income to at least the level of the minimum wage. At the same time, she worries that it could be counterproductive: Delft University of Technology decided to terminate the CSC scheme back in 2018 due to the PhD candidates’ excessively low income. “In my view, that would be much worse than the current situation.”
However, such a scenario cannot be ruled out. The university is working on a new approach to the CSC scheme in consultation with the faculties and other universities. In addition, EUR is developing a checklist for the purpose of assessing international partnerships and scholarships, on the basis of which it intends to scrutinise the Chinese scholarship scheme as well. That checklist was scheduled to be ready by October, but is not yet complete.
There are currently 195 CSC PhD candidates at EUR (including Erasmus MC). The group recently hit the headlines when it emerged that the CSC’s terms and conditions include an obligation of loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party – something that the PhD candidates themselves point out is merely symbolic.