Recently there has been growing uneasiness surrounding the bursary system for PhD candidates at Dutch universities. In April 2013, a judge ruled that PhD candidates at the University of Groningen could be appointed as students with a scholarship, but the Dutch Tax Administration disagrees with this ruling. Nevertheless, in May 2013, the Minister of Education, Culture and Science, Jet Bussemaker, gauged the opinion of Dutch universities on an experiment with a bursary system for PhDs. In December 2013, the national PhD network PNN published a position paper on the issue. Although there are no indications that anything will change in Utrecht any time soon, it would not be the first time that an attempt to reform the system has been made.
In the nineties, an experiment was carried out in Utrecht (as well as at other Dutch universities), similar to the experiment proposed by Bussemaker, with far-reaching consequences. Based on an archive that is in the possession of PrOUt, we have written a reconstruction of what happened in the nineties.
References can be found in the Dutch version of this document. Although quotes have been carefully translated, we cannot guarantee complete accuracy.
The position of Dutch PhD candidates is unusual. In almost all other countries, PhD candidates are students with a scholarship, but in the Netherlands they are employees of the university. In addition to this, starting in 1993 several Dutch universities also introduced a bursary system. Contrary to PhD employees (“aio’s” and “oio’s”), PhD candidates in such a system are not employees of the university, but students with a scholarship. The rationale for the new system was that universities would save on costs of personnel, that the number of dissertations would increase and that their average completion time would decrease. However, the results were radically different in reality.
The experiment in Utrecht
In 1996, the university started a two-year experiment with stipends for the Faculties of Geosciences, Veterinary Medicine, Theology (which no longer exists at Utrecht University), Philosophy, and Arts (both now part of Humanities). By signing the bursary agreement, the PhD candidate committed to participate in an experiment of at most two years, ending in September 1998. There would be a mid-term evaluation of the experiment; if the outcome was negative, the PhD candidate could switch to become an employee.
This experiment was controversial even before it started. In the first meeting held concerning the bursary system, the University Council called the experiment unacceptable, with one of the primary concerns being that the university mainly appeared to be interested in saving on employee benefits Others were worried about the consequences of the bursary system for the quality of the thesis and the position of PhD candidates. Before long, the bursary PhDs of the faculty of Literature, containing by far the most bursaries, started a bursary PhD council “Beurspromovendi Overleg Letteren” (BPO).
The BPO survey
Since the promised evaluation of the experiment was continuously delayed, BPO decided to take matters into their own hands and carried out a survey among 39 bursary PhDs of the Faculty of Literature. The results showed that the bursary holders were not satisfied with their position.
Although the bursary PhDs should have received a salary similar to that of PhD employees, it turned out to be a few hundred guilders per month less. Most other arrangements were poor as well. In order to finish their thesis in less time, bursary PhDs were not supposed to teach. However, a large majority (80%) indicated that they would like to teach, and two thirds had in fact already been approached by their supervisors for teaching duties. In almost all cases they were not paid for this at all, or received ad-hoc payment of gift certificates for books.
The bursary students were also unsatisfied with their training; in many cases, it was inconsonant with their background training. Their status should have been completely different from that of PhD employees, with a larger focus on their education. In practice, there were no separate courses for bursary PhDs.
In addition, the bursary contract stated that bursary PhDs should have more frequent contact with their supervisor to help complete their PhD in less time. However, the results of the survey showed that in reality bursary PhDs met with their supervisor just as often, or even less, than did PhD employees.
The largest issue of the bursary system was the formal position and the image of the bursary PhD as compared to the PhD employees. However, unlike the latter, bursary PhDs were ‘just’ students. They could not apply for reimbursement of travel expenses or a severance package, and did not have health insurance or save for their pension. Moreover, the bursaries considered their status as a student to be a large disadvantage for their future. PhD employees would have an advantage in job interviews, since their PhD counted as work experience.
Above all, the bursary PhDs were not happy with the unclear position they had: they were neither employees nor students. As one of the respondents of the survey wrote, “Although bursary PhDs are supposed to be students, they do not enjoy the benefits that students have.”
The experiment in the media
The news surrounding the bursary experiment was not limited to internal reports like the BPO survey, but also included a large number of opinion pieces that generally painted a similar picture: the bursary system was a poor way to save costs and had to be terminated as soon as possible. The issue was not only repeatedly discussed in the UU magazine U-blad and the alumni magazine Illuster, but also in national newspapers like the Volkskrant and NRC Handelsblad. It was argued that science heavily relied on PhD candidates, while the bursary system would marginalize PhDs and thus decrease their number – the exact opposite of what the system set out to achieve.
The court case
The prominent 1998 article “Wie van de drie?” in the Nederlands Juristenblad (Dutch Law Magazine) concluded that in practice, the difference between bursaries and PhD employees was decreasing. They met their supervisors just as often, were both expected to teach, and contributed in a similar amount to the scientific output of the university. Because their legal status was very different, however, this situation contradicted the equality principle.
Using similar arguments the labor union Abvakabo had started a court case against Utrecht University in 1997. After three years, the judge ruled that the bursary system was unlawful. In practice, the bursary PhD was more like an employee: “A substantial part of scientific research is performed by PhD candidates working on their thesis” and “PhD theses are a significant source […] of knowledge that benefit society”. It took two years to implement the changes that resulted from this legal ruling.
The bursary experiment in the nineties in Utrecht was unsuccessful. Besides being detrimental to the position of bursary PhDs in several respects, the experiment did not achieve its aims. Bursaries did not see their supervisor more often, did not benefit from additional education, and their lower image would mean a decrease in the number of PhDs.
Perhaps the results of the experiment are the reason why in Utrecht, unlike in Groningen, Maastricht and Amsterdam, there are no concrete plans to join any new bursary experiments. Since the current situation is not substantially different from the previous one, it is rather unlikely that the experiment will be successful this time around. For this reason, PrOut supports the petition of the “Actiegroep Promotiestudent” and will continue to monitor this situation closely.