NETHERLANDS/MAASTRICHT. The government announced last week that universities will be given a period of eight years to experiment with PhD programmes in which candidates receive a grant instead of a salary. The Netherlands PhD Network (Promovendi Netwerk Nederland) rejects the plans. Maastricht rector Luc Soete is cautious.
The new PhD programmes are cheaper for universities because they do not have to employ PhD candidates and they do not need to pay social insurance contributions. The level of payment – paid from the Graduation Fond – will remain the same. The grant student does not need to teach but needs to pay tuition fees. Universities are free to partly or completely waive this.
The educational institutes have been lobbying for years for this kind of PhD programme, which is common abroad. The government hopes that this will allow universities to train more PhD candidates and also provide them with better education. The link to the labour market should be improved too. At the moment, institutes are often criticised for not preparing PhD students for a career outside the academic world.
Universities may decide for themselves whether they will participate in this experiment – Maastricht University still needs to consider the matter – which may involve up to two thousand students. They will be given a great deal of freedom in the implementation of their experiments. For example, universities may opt for three-year or even five-year programmes, although education minister Bussemaker expects that most PhD programmes will take four years.
The advantages of having a student status would be that PhD candidates can demand teaching by their university, have more freedom of choice in the subject of their research, and would have no other duties to perform. A disadvantage would be, for example, that they would not be contributing towards their pension and would even have to pay tuition fees.
A final evaluation will be held in 2021. One of the questions that the experiment should answer is whether supervisors see a difference in the quality between PhD students and PhD employees. The PhD candidates’ appreciation for their education will also be evaluated, as well as their preparation for the labour market.
The Netherlands PhD Network, which has opposed the introduction of the PhD grant for years, warns that this experiment will lead to inflation of the PhD title. “We should just be employees. The fact that universities have too little money doesn’t mean that you can solve the problem by stealing from PhD candidates. Now universities will even make a profit from it. A PhD candidate costs 70 thousand euro, one hundred thousand euro less than a PhD employee. Universities receive a bonus of 93 thousand euro per PhD graduate, so they make a profit of 23 thousand. So of course they will take on as many PhD students as possible.” Both the Maastricht PhD Academy and the trainee assistants in the university council refrained from commenting on the proposal, because they have not read the entire text yet.
Maastricht rector Luc Soete feels that “you have to look at the proposal carefully. You need to be cautious. For certain groups of foreign PhD candidates who return to their own countries outside the European Union after graduating, this could be favourable. They are not interested in contributing towards a pension. We already have foreign PhD candidates with grants from institutions such as Nuffic and UNU. But if you end up having a dual structure, with employees on the one side and students who more or less do the same work, on the other, the situation is untenable. The trainee assistant system might also disintegrate and change into a grants system. That is a pity. Our system is fairly unique in the world and a definite strength. It makes us attractive for young, foreign talent.”