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PhD candidates remain employees for the moment

NETHERLANDS. Universities are disappointed, but PhD candidates are relieved. The cabinet decided at the last minute not to give "PhD student" a status in the Higher Education Act.

Since the middle of the nineteen-nineties, universities have tried hard to replace the PhD employee by the PhD student. This would mean that they no longer need to pay salaries and employer contributions, but only a student grant. That would be much cheaper.

Time and again, courts ruled against them. PhD candidates carry out labour and therefore they must be viewed as employees. A case against the University of Groningen is still to be decided in court.

The universities point to other countries, where PhD students are common. Why should we be so strict about it in the Netherlands? There's no harm in making the PhD system a little more flexible.

The cabinet seemed susceptible to this argument. They wanted to give the ‘scholarship student’ a legal status. PhD candidates who did not teach, should then be referred to as students. But the Council of State, who advises on proposed legislation, made mincemeat of it.

“A good bargain is a pick purse,” the council warned. The cheap PhD student could well lead to a “sensitive decrease” of the academic level.

At the moment, it is attractive for foreign students to do a PhD here in the Netherlands, exactly because of the employee status. Also, PhD candidates do a lot of teaching in bachelor’s programmes, “such as practicals in physics, chemistry and biomedical sciences”.

There is also the risk of a divide. “Institutes that want to attract and keep brilliant students, will offer them a place as a PhD employee, while less brilliant students would be given the status of PhD student,” the council predicted. “Unintentionally, a difference would be created between first-rate and second-rate PhD tracks.”

The cabinet has taken this criticism to heart. For the moment, universities are only allowed to experiment with PhD students. It is still to be decided what the nature of such an experiment should be.




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