Why does corona affect people differently?

Lude Frank thinks it’s in the genes

Why does corona affect people differently?

Why do some people get incredibly sick from the coronavirus while others don’t notice a thing? Geneticist Lude Franke thinks it might have something to do with their genes. Franke is heading up a large-scale Lifelines study into corona symptoms that’s set to start this week.
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1 April om 10:16 uur.
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Christien Boomsma

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That was fast! Doesn’t it usually take a little longer to set up a study like this?

‘Correct. We read all the news about how some people got sick from the virus while others didn’t. We suspected genetics played an important role in this. Through the biobank of Lifelines, we have access to the genetic information of 135,000 people in the north of the Netherlands. Approximately two weeks ago, we figured we might be able to use that.

We started making the switch. I hit pause on everything and collected a large team to focus on this. Everyone was like, this is exactly what we’re supposed to do. We’re not doing it alone, obviously.

We’re collaborating with UG Lifelines and the Aletta Jacobs School of Public Health. We had to work really hard and coordinate a lot, but we’re ready to get going.’

The people who participated in Lifelines live in the north of the Netherlands, which fortunately hasn’t been hit as hard as the rest of the country. Is the data collected here even useful?

‘First, we’ll study people suffering from flu-like symptoms. We’ll ask them if they have any symptoms and what they are exactly. It could just be the flu, but it could also be a corona infection.

We’ll then look at locations in the DNA that could explain those symptoms. Once we’ve found those, we’ll need people who’ve been proven to have corona. Then we’re going to compare the effects in the large group to the much smaller group of confirmed corona patients to see if the latter has them as well.

I hit pause on everything and collected a large team to focus on this

In this two-step process, we only need to study a limited number of confirmed COVID-19 patients for the study to be statistically significant.’

Do you have any idea where to look for the genetic deviation? 

‘There’s a location on chromosome 6 which is known to cause a lot of autoimmune diseases. We suspect that people who have such a strong immune response to the virus might have a deviation on that chromosome. We’re looking at the HLA area on chromosome 6 and the KIR gene cluster on chromosome 19. First, though, we need to have all our data in order. Only then can we start studying it.’

Will we have to wait for another two years before you figure everything out?

‘No, not at all! We wanted to get started so quickly to make sure we could contribute. As soon as we collect the information from the Lifelines participants’ questionnaires, we’ll start our first round of analysis. We won’t be doing that alone, by the way; we’re working together with other large biobanks, like the one in Rotterdam and the Dutch Twin Register. I hope it’s just a matter of weeks before we have the first results.’

Will hospitals be able to test their patients for this specific gene profile?

‘Well… We’ll probably find something in the DNA pretty quickly, but I don’t think we’ll have a test ready on the short term or prevent people from getting sick. But once we’ve found those locations, we can figure out what it is they do. Which genes are they impacting, and which cells? Which biological processes were being disrupted?

We have no idea why the immune system goes berserk

Right now, we have no idea why the immune system goes berserk and why people’s lungs fill with fluid. Once we understand that, we’ll have information for the drug developers, so they know what to aim for.’

You also want to study how the virus spread. How does that work? How do you know who really has corona?

‘Everyone is waiting for what’s known as the serological test. The current COVID-19 test determines whether someone has the disease, but once they’re cured, the virus is gone. If we can find the antibodies that protect people from getting infected again, we can determine whether someone had it before. That allows us to look at the population and make a much more precise estimation of how deadly this virus is.

What we need right now is a lot of international funding to expand this research. We’re paying for everything ourselves right now; we were given money by the UG, the UMCG, and Lifelines.

We’ll need more if we want to do those serological tests later on. That would enable us to understand what really happened. The questionnaires from the study could be of great value if we know exactly who’s had the disease and who hasn’t.’

Surely it can’t be that difficult? 

‘You’d hope so, because this is of great importance to the whole country. Two days ago, Harvard virologist Jaap Goudsmit was a guest on the news programme Buitenhof, where he said that we have to systematically record this disease using biobanks like the Rotterdam study and Lifelines. He didn’t know that we would be announcing our study the next day.

What we now need is a lot of international funding to expand this research

Look, this biobank study is extremely important, but it’s difficult to convince policy makers of that. But this is the moment to tell them that research like this is essential to understanding how people’s health and bodies work.

This pandemic is having a colossal impact on the economy. Spend some money on research! It will most likely lead to better insights and more knowledge. If more governments used their biobanks like this, I definitely think it will yield a profit.’

Uncertainty around exams remains

Uncertainty around exams remains

Almost two weeks after the university cancelled all physical classes, there is still much uncertainty about what to do with the exams. Students are inundating their lecturers with e-mailed questions. But they don’t know what to tell them.
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Christien Boomsma

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On Monday, the option to administer exams online became available. Lecturers can use Blackboard Collaborate for oral exams and presentations. Another option is an online written exam. But none of the options are really ideal. ‘Exams have to abide by certain rules and that’s harder to do online’, says UG spokesperson Gernant Deekens. ‘It’s up to the faculty exam committees and the faculties themselves.’

Exams have to meet the right requirements. They should test students’ knowledge of the material properly and cover all the relevant learning objectives, like expertise or analytical skills. Large multiple-choice exams are out, however, and making students do an assignment instead often means too much work for the lecturers. Then there’s the matter of making sure students don’t look up the answers online.

Open-book exams

‘I think we’ll be seeing a lot of open-book exams’, says health law professor Brigit Toebes. ‘We’re discussing the option, anyway.’ She thinks it might be a pretty good solution. ‘In the end, it’s much more like reality than a regular exam. We’re always looking stuff up in our work’, she says.

Pharmaceutical professor Eelko Hak spends most of his time on e-mail correspondence with the exam committee, he says. ‘Teaching online is going pretty well, but I’m mainly worried about the exams. Can we trust the students to do it themselves? Are their laptops and internet connections up to the task? How can I formulate the right questions to test for the learning goals?’

Student pledge

To prevent fraud, the university has included a student pledge in the online testing environment. Students pledge to take the exams by themselves and only use the materials that are allowed. They’re also reminded that fraud and plagiarism are serious offences and will be reported to the exam committee.

Finally, lecturers are advised to randomly contact students through video conferencing and ask them extra questions or ask them to provide additional information. 

Exams in june

No one is talking about rescheduling the exams, however. ‘We haven’t heard anything about that’, says business administration lecturer Derk-Jan Heslinga. He attended a webinar on online testing, but no one has provided any clarity on the issue. 

He argues that all exams should be postponed until June. ‘I think it would be best to schedule one big exam period in June and July, of six or seven weeks. That way, the lecturers have the opportunity to prepare and the ESI will have time to roll out the online options. An exam isn’t something you can just have a stab at. You have to get it right straight away.’

This isn’t the first time the UG has been on lockdown

The fish market at the Hoge der Aa, C.C.A Last, Collection Groninger Archives

In 1826, a disease also shut the uni down

This isn’t the first time the UG has been on lockdown

It’s not the first time the UG has closed its doors because of a mysterious disease. When the Groningen epidemic raged through the city in 1826, classes were cancelled for months, says UG historian Klaas van Berkel.
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14 March om 17:59 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 16 March 2020
om 11:39 uur.
Christien Boomsma

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March 14 at 17:59 PM.
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Christien Boomsma

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In 1826, more than 10 percent of the people in Groningen died of a mysterious illness that would become known as the ‘Groningen epidemic’. ‘It was impossible to teach classes’, says Klaas van Berkel. ‘Students and lecturer were home, sick.’

Others were working on combating the disease, which was also known as ‘intermittent fevers’. People were laid up in bed and there weren’t nearly enough doctors to help them.

Astronomy professor Seerp Brouwer, who originally graduated from medical school, went back to work as a physician. Medical students helped out where they could. Professor Thomas á Thuessink and Bakker led an emergency hospital set up in the arsenal at the Turfsingel, where the Praedinius high school currently stands.

Panic

‘The city was panicking’, says Van Berkel. ‘No one knew what was going on. People isolated themselves out of fear back then as well.’

For a long time, malaria was thought to be the cause of the Groningen epidemic. But according to recent research by Ulco Kooystra with the Documentation Centre for Dutch Political Parties, this is not correct. Kooystra is working on a book about Sibrandus Stratingh, who made the first electric driving ‘car’ in 1835. Stratingh was laid up with the disease for two months.

‘I always felt malaria was an unusual explanation’, says Kooystra. ‘Sure, the disease was endemic at the time, but it was fairly mild in the Netherlands. It only killed the elderly and the weak. Not unlike corona, really. So why would it be killing all kinds of people now?’

Muck steps

His explanations is much more prosaic. ‘I think it was a combination of typhus and other bowel diseases, caused by contaminated surface water.’

Shortly before the disease struck, Groningen had switched to the barrel system to ‘collect poop and other faecal matter’ at people’s homes. These enormous amounts of faeces were left to drip dry on the ‘muck steps’. Once everything had dried out, it was transported to the Groningen bogs to be used as fertiliser.

The muck steps were located at the start of the Winschoterdiep in the south east of the city, where the river the Drentse Aa entered the city. ‘But it was in an open container, and it would overflow when it was raining. The seepage would contaminate the clean water flowing into the canals.

Canal water

People drank the water from the canals and then pooped it out again, bacteria and all. ‘That’s how that worked.’ No wonder, then, that the disease especially affected the poorer neighbourhoods, as the people there couldn’t afford to drink beer or wine.

The disease was finally under control when the then still very modern solution of chlorine was used, recommended by, among others, Stratingh. ‘Chlorine and chlorine compounds had only just been discovered. People didn’t know anything about bacteria back then, so they thought it was the strong smell that killed the pathogenic miasmas in the air’, says Kooystra.

Chlorine

Groningen was the first city that used chlorine to combat an epidemic. ‘It’s also possible people were less susceptible to it’, says Kooystra.

In the end, the university didn’t start classes again until December, just before the Christmas holidays. But don’t think the UG took things easy.

‘They made up for lost time by cancelling all vacations the next year’, says Van Berkel. ‘They did the same thing after the war. Education had come to a virtual standstill during the last year of the war, even though the university was officially still open. After the liberation, they taught two years’ worth of classes in a single year.’

Scholarship PhD’s flyer to protest their situation

Scholarship PhD’s flyer to protest their situation

As of today protesting scholarship PhD’s will flood the university with their ‘Now Hiring’ posters. By spreading their pamphlet the scholarship PhD’s want to point out their unequal work situation to potentially new PhD candidates.
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Despite heavy criticism from current scholarship PhD’s and the Promovendi Netwerk Nederland (PNN) the UG just started recruiting new scholarship PhD’s.

‘This leads to dissatisfaction and agitation amongst the current scholarship PhD’s’, says Fieke Visser, one of the protesting PhD’s. ‘Many want to protect future scholarship PhD’s from this kind of contract.’

Job vacancy

The text on the posters
reads like a regular job vacancy, but warns future scholarship PhD’s for the inequality
of their position. ‘Would you like to earn on average 20.000 to 30.000 less
over your PhD-trajectory than your fellow employee PhD? Get the honoured title ‘student’
instead of staff? Be at risk of around 38% or higher to experience serious mental
health issues? (…) Yes? Then the University of Groningen is looking for YOU!’

With this campaign the PhD’s refer to a similar campaign held by PhD’s at the University of Amsterdam (UvA) in 1998.

Court cases

Back then scholarship PhD’s also protested their unequal position with satirical recruitment flyers. The protests against what was then known as the ‘bursary system’ led to a series of court cases, which the UvA eventually lost in 2004.

The Dutch High Council ruled that the PhD’s were treated as employees and therefore should also be paid as such. A couple of years later the UG started working with scholarship PhD’s, which led to the current ‘experiment’ for which the Dutch minister of education allowed the university to hire PhD’s on a scholarship.

Increase in incident reports during introduction period

Increase in incident reports during introduction period

The number of reports to the Advice Committee for Orientation (ACI) has increased last year. A total of 49 incidents at student associations were reported.
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Twenty of these incidents took place during the introduction period. Most of the reports (36) concerned general student associations, but incidents also took place at study associations and sports clubs.

The ACI is actually happy with the increase in reports. ‘This means people feel comfortable reporting something’, the committee writes in its annual report. In 2018, there were twenty-six incidents reported. Interestingly enough, back then, the ACI called this number ‘too high’.

Fights

In several cases, the incident concerned an accident. Some of the reports, however, were of fights. Some of these have been reported to the police. ‘In all cases, the ACI feels the boards of the organisations concerned acted correctly after the incident’, the ACI says.

The number of associations that have submitted a plan for their introduction period to the ACI has also increased once again. A total of sixty-seven associations did so this year, five up from last year.

It turns out the ACI is definitely taking these plans seriously. Only sixteen associations’ plans were given the green light, while twenty-nine clubs were sent back to the drawing board.

‘Schools’ to facilitate interdisciplinary research

‘Schools’ to facilitate interdisciplinary research

Over the next few years, the RUG wants to set up interdisciplinary ‘schools’. These would enable researchers from different faculties to work together with universities of applied sciences, corporations, and social organisations on current themes.
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The RUG cites the successful Aletta Jacobs School of Public Health as an example. At this school, the university is collaborating with the UMCG and Hanze University of Applied Sciences on research, education, and advice on healthy ageing.

Strategic plan

The new schools, which are an important part of the RUG’s strategic plan, will focus on the themes of energy transition and climate change, public health, technology and digital society, and sustainable society. The activities will be expressly determined by the contributions of social parties. The schools will be set up for a period of five years, after which they’ll be replaced by new schools if necessary.

‘We’re building on existing structures’, said rector magnificus Cisca Wijmenga during a university council meeting. ‘But we know that we can’t roll out everything at once. Bringing together that which we already have isn’t all that complicated but improving on it is exciting. We’ll be discussing the ins and outs of that in the period ahead.’

Interdisciplinary

The interdisciplinary nature of the schools is an essential characteristic. Collaboration between researchers from different faculties or disciplines has proven difficult. The schools should make this easier. ‘Think of a building, an innovation lab, where people can get together’, says university president Jouke de Vries.

The costs for the schools would be paid for from the RUG’s central policy funds. This means the faculties won’t have to worry about spending any of their current budgets.

The Feringa Building has found a contractor

The Feringa Building has found a contractor

The RUG has finally found a contractor for the technical infrastructure of the Feringa Building. On Wednesday, the university will sign the contract with De Groot-Lammerink Installatiecombinatie. They’ll start on the construction almost immediately.

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Almost a year ago, contracting for the job stalled as a judge intervened. UCE, a consortium made up of three companies, was in the running for the longest time. However, the RUG felt their offer of 90 million euros was too high and ended up employing a third party which offered to do the job for ten million less. UCE went to court, and the RUG was reprimanded. They shouldn’t have circumvented the tender process.

The new contract has finally been drawn up: De Groot-Lammerink will place all installations that are needed for the building’s climate regulation, water and electricity supply. The contractor will also perform maintenance on the building for the next ten years.

The holdup doesn’t seem to have led to any insurmountable issues. The construction and technical infrastructure need to be coordinated, but construction company Ballast Nedam won’t start ‘real’ construction until now. They have already installed two thousand piles. 

The RUG is not quite done yet. They still have to find someone to install three kilometres worth of lab tables, 450 fume hoods, and thirty laser labs.

Construction of the gas-free Feringa Building, which will be 62,000 square metres, has been happening in fits and starts. The tender process for the construction was halted in 2017 because the improving economy drove up prices. Ballast Nedam wasn’t hired until January 2018. The building is projected to be finished halfway through 2023. 

New organisation tasked with saving FSE educational quality

New organisation tasked with saving FSE educational quality

The structure of education at the science faculty is a mess. Reorganising it should solve the issue. But the changes are drastic and are being implemented quite hastily, the faculty council says.

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Last year’s report didn’t mince words. The educational quality at the Faculty of Science and Engineering was in danger. Work stress was high, people didn’t quite know who was in charge of what, and in some places working conditions were ‘impossible’, said the report, written by a special committee that investigated the situation. Now, there’s a plan to change it. Last week, the faculty council voted in favour of the main ideas. 

The biggest change is the introduction of one big educational institute, a merger of the current Education Support Centre (ESC), the undergraduate school (USSC), and part of the graduate school (GSSE), managed by an education management team. Each research institute will get its own director of education, who will be in charge of communicating with researchers. 

The thirty-seven study programmes at the faculty will be put into six clusters. This should decrease the distance that employees from the educational organisation and the research institutes feel exists between them. A committee of faculty educational experts will be advising the faculty board and the research management team. 

Organised

‘We really needed a change’, says education coordinator Eva Teuling, who will be keeping an eye on the operation on behalf of the faculty council. ‘We consider clustering and education director a good solution. It makes everything a little smaller and more organised.’ 

A graduate school will focus on the PhD programme and will be separate to the educational organisation. ‘There isn’t much overlap between the master programmes and the PhD programme’, the plan says. ‘There’s no reason to think this will change.’ 

Teuling is essentially in favour of the plan, but she’s critical of how quickly it’s being implemented. The implementation team will start working this month, and the new organisation should start work in September 2020. ‘There are many people who wouldn’t have minded postponing it for another year’, she says. ‘But the board didn’t want the staff to have to wait another year for answers about what was going to happen. I feel differently about that, but it’s fine, I guess.’

Stress

The plan doesn’t solve another pressing issue: the work stress. ‘It’s an entirely different problem’, says Teuling. ‘People still have to teach just as much in the same amount of time.’ She does think the new organisation might make people less frustrated.

The faculty council may have agreed to the plan’s basic ideas, but that doesn’t mean things can’t change during the implementation phase. The faculty board wants to see if it’s possible to decrease the number of exam committees. They might want just one exam committee per cluster, or even just a single large committee consisting of ‘chambers’ providing expertise on various courses. 

The council was especially hesitant about this plan. If the faculty board wants to make any changes in this regard, they have to go past the faculty council. 

RUG will better protect network from hackers

Two-step verification to be implemented

RUG will better protect network from hackers

Logging on to your RUG account using only a password will soon be a thing of the past. The RUG is switching to two-step verification.
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The University of Maastricht isn’t the only educational institute that got spooked by the hack that crippled their entire network. Other universities also quickly did a check of their digital systems. The RUG has decided to switch to two-step verification. 

‘The damage we’d suffer if we were taken offline is too big to risk it’, said portfolio manager Hans Biemans with the university board during the university council committee meeting. ‘Anyone who wants to log on will also receive a code on their cell phone.’

Extra vulnerable

Just like many other large universities, the RUG is constantly under attack from hackers and phishing mails. So far, they’ve always been successful in fending off the attacks, but after Maastricht was forced to pay two hundred thousand euros to hackers, the university board is worried. ‘As a research university, we have a lot of research data and studies that run for years, which makes us extra vulnerable’, said Biemans.

The university also investigated whether they could insure themselves against a hacking. This is currently not easily done. At the very least, the university would be subjected to an audit, which would register all the risks and calculate ways to overcome these.

 It’s not yet clear when the extra security step will be implemented. There were previous plans for two-step verification, but the project was postponed. That is no longer an option. Biemans: ‘This decision is supported.’

Scholarship PhD manifesto presented to Lower House

Lucille Mattijssen with PNN (far left) wants PhDs to be appreciated more. On the right, Fieke Visser, spokesperson for the Groningen PhD students.

Scholarship PhD manifesto presented to Lower House

Groningen PhDs and the PhD Network Netherlands (PNN) have presented their manifesto to the Lower House on Tuesday. They demand an end to the scholarship PhD experiment.
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The manifesto, which has been signed by 239 scholarship PhDs, almost all PhD councils, and a large number of interest groups, was received by the members of the standing parliamentary committee on education, culture, and science.

‘We unfortunately didn’t feel heard by our university’s board’, spokesperson Fieke Visser, scholarship PhD at spatial sciences, said in a statement. ‘We’ve had talks with them, but it’s become clear that they don’t take the issues we raise in the manifesto seriously.’

They acknowledge that the experiment’s goal, to improve the knowledge society, is a noble one, they feel the implementation isn’t up to snuff. ‘No one, not you, not minister Van Engelshoven, not the RUG board, can distinguish between scholarship PhDs and employed PhDs when they walk into our offices. That’s not because there’s anything wrong with your eyes, but because scholarship and employed PhDs do the exact same work’, says Visser. 

They once again demand an end to the experiment, compensation, and the option to have their scholarship contract changed to a regular employee contract. 

Wrong decision

Visser and her partners hope that the Lower House, who previously enforced a continuation of the experiment, can realise that the experiment has failed. ‘And that it’s important that we put an end to it as quickly as possible.’

The five Groningen scholarship PhDs were accompanied by PNN chairperson Lucille Mattijssen. ‘We hope to make them realise that we’re serious and that the experiment should not be continued’, says Mattijssen. ‘PhDs are a valuable contribution to universities’ output and should be appreciated. If you want to create more positions and decide to chip away at the terms of employment, you’ve made the wrong decision. You can’t have something for nothing.’ 

Groningen scholarship PhDs published a manifesto in December, in which they demand an immediate end to the experiment that allows people to get a PhD degree on a scholarship. They pointed out that there are barely any differences to regular PhD candidates. However, scholarship PhDs receive a 1,700 euro scholarship, and get no pension, nor other secondary terms of employment.

Philosophy also ends scholarship PhD positions

Another faculty changes its mind

Philosophy also ends scholarship PhD positions

After the law faculty, the Faculty of Philosophy has also decided to no longer employ scholarship PhDs. The faculty says that having two types of PhD candidates is ‘not desirable’.
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For 2020, philosophy only has to PhD positions available instead of the four they had previously. Both positions are for employees, not scholarship PhDs.

‘It’s a deliberate decision’, says director of the Graduate School of Philosophy Han Thomas Adriaenssen. ‘We felt it was no longer acceptable for there to be a difference between our PhD candidates.’

NWO norm

Since research financier NWO only provides employee positions for PhDs, the faculty has decided to follow their norm, since ‘we’ll always have employed PhDs’. Unfortunately, this meant that the faculty had fewer positions available; employed PhDs are more expensive.

Philosophy will not be exploring how to compensate the current scholarship PhDs. ‘That is currently not something we’re talking about.’

The national experiment that pays PhDs a scholarship rather than salary has been met with much criticism. The scholarship PhDs earn several hundred euros less a month than employed PhDs. They also don’t earn a pension, get no vacation pay or year-end bonus.

Manifesto

Last December, Groningen PhD candidates published a manifesto in which they demanded an immediate end to the experiment. This manifesto has since been translated nine hundred times. 236 of the signatures are from scholarship PhDs.

In spite of the criticism, the RUG has decided to recruit 650 scholarship PhDs over the next few years.

No new scholarship PhDs at law faculty

‘The differences are negligible’

No new scholarship PhDs at law faculty

The Faculty of Law will not be hiring any more scholarship PhDs for the foreseeable future. Internal research has shown that the difference with employed PhDs is too small. They will work out possible remuneration for the scholarship PhDs currently at the faculty.
By Christien Boomsma and René Hoogschagen
27 January om 16:35 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 28 January 2020
om 16:23 uur.
January 27 at 16:35 PM.
Last modified on January 28, 2020
at 16:23 PM.

The discussion about the difference between scholarship PhDs and regular PhDs reached its nadir in December when a group of scholarship PhDs published a manifesto in which they demanded equal treatment. The initiators say the two position are basically the same and that the difference in remuneration isn’t justified. 

The law faculty board and the Graduate School of Law entered into discussions with the PhDs. ‘All the participants agreed that the practical differences are negligible’, the faculty board writes. ‘There is hardly any difference in freedom of choice, and in spite of the lack of a formal hierarchy, the relationship between supervisor and PhD candidate can be characterised as a master/apprentice relationship, which in reality means it’s hierarchical.’

Natural pressure

This leads to ‘natural pressure’ on the PhDs, and it can’t be ruled out that ‘in incidental cases, people are clearly teaching too much’. Besides, scholarship PhDs actually want to teach, as they need the experience and the edge it will give them in the labour market. 

Finally, it also turned out that people treat scholarship PhDs differently. ‘That is extremely unpleasant for them. People shouldn’t make jokes about how scholarship PhDs are ‘just’ students’, says Pauline Westerman with the Groningen Graduate School of Law.

The faculty board has said it wants to explore revising the current system, ‘taking into account the fiscal (lack of) possibilities, equality between PhD students’, and the RUG’s policies. 

Slow down

The coming year, the faculty will be paying for employed PhD positions itself. They also want to create five PhD positions for people with a sandwich or top-up scholarship. They are positions for PhDs who have a foreign scholarship that the RUG adds to, or who spend part of their PhD track at a different university.

Vice-dean Jan Jans: ‘We find ourself in the lucky position of being able to slow down. We want to take a little more time to think about this. We want young and talented researchers to come here and grow into good lecturers and employees. It’s important to modernise things from the bottom up.’

Jans emphasises that he’ll also look into the current cases. ‘To determine how their work life can be improved and how we can help with that.’ Westerman wants to make it clearer that teaching is voluntary for scholarship PhDs. ‘I’ll be keeping a closer eye on that.

Signal

Rolf Hoving, with the personnel faction in the faculty council, is happy with the development, although he thinks even more could be done. ‘They should really say that they’ll never participate in an experiment like this again.’

Faculty council chairperson Michiel Duchateau: ‘My signal to the board of director would be that this construction might work under some circumstances, but that it’s different at our faculty.’

Martha Buit, one of the manifesto’s initiators and PhD candidate at the law faculty, is happy that her faculty board looked for a solution itself and didn’t blindly trust the vision of the coordinating Graduate School. ‘I really hope this has a spill-over effect to other faculty boards.’

Scholarship PhDs: ‘UMCG shouldn’t have passed the buck’

Scholarship PhDs: ‘UMCG shouldn’t have passed the buck’

The MD/PhDs who work at the UMCG have gone to court. They believe that the UMCG was wrong in saying the RUG was responsible for dealing with their demands to be treated equal to employed PhD candidates.

22 January om 9:57 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 22 January 2020
om 10:38 uur.
January 22 at 9:57 AM.
Last modified on January 22, 2020
at 10:38 AM.


Christien Boomsma

Door Christien Boomsma

22 January om 9:57 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 22 January 2020
om 10:38 uur.
Christien Boomsma

By Christien Boomsma

January 22 at 9:57 AM.
Last modified on January 22, 2020
at 10:38 AM.
Christien Boomsma

Christien Boomsma

Achtergrondcoördinator en wetenschapsredacteur
Volledig bio
Achtergrondcoördinator en wetenschapsredacteur
Full bio

A group of 58 MD/PhDs – PhD students in a special programme who are both getting a degree and studying to be a medical doctor – asked to be paid equal to employed PhD candidates in January of 2019. After their demands were rejected and the PhDs appealed, the UMCG waited until December to respond. At that point, the organisation said that it had never been qualified to give a response to the demands. The scholarship PhDs had to go to the RUG.

The scholarship PhDs are not satisfied with this answer, however. ‘We have reason to believe that the UMCG is in fact in a position to come to a legal agreement with the MD/PhDs’, says lawyer Dino Jongsma, who submitted the appeal to the Rechtbank Noord-Nederland last Thursday.

It could be a while before there’s a ruling. ‘I have asked for an accelerated procedure’, says Jongsma. ‘I hope the court agrees. There will also be a court hearing.’

In the meantime, the scholarship PhDs are also still waiting for a response from the RUG.

FSE students want to study at Zernike on the weekends

‘Even if it’s just one building that stays open’

FSE students want to study at Zernike on the weekends

Students of the Faculty of Science and Engineering want the study rooms at Zernike to be open on the weekends. The faculty board has promised to look into the possibilities.
16 December om 10:34 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 16 December 2019
om 13:46 uur.
December 16 at 10:34 AM.
Last modified on December 16, 2019
at 13:46 PM.

Christien Boomsma

Door Christien Boomsma

16 December om 10:34 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 16 December 2019
om 13:46 uur.
Christien Boomsma

By Christien Boomsma

December 16 at 10:34 AM.
Last modified on December 16, 2019
at 13:46 PM.

‘There are quite a lot of study spaces on Zernike’, says student member Ariba Adnan of the FSE faculty council. ‘Most students study in the Duisenberg Building or the Bernoulliborg, but Nijenborgh, the Linnaeusborg and the Kapteynborg also have room.’ 

However, student numbers have gone up over the last few years. More and more students use the facilities, but on the weekends the buildings close, meaning they have to go to the overcrowded UB in the city centre. 

‘A lot of students approached us about this’, says Adnan. ‘They want to be able to study at Zernike. Especially in the exam period.’ 

The students on the faculty council asked the board to look into the possibility to keep the study rooms open on the weekend. ‘The Harmonie Building is open, too’, says chair Bernhard Budin of the student faction. ‘So it can be done.’ 

A matter of money

Dean Jasper Knoester promised to investigate. ‘But it’s also a matter of money’, he warned. Keeping a building open means staff members need to be around, too, and having to pay extra for heating. ‘We have to weigh teachers against security people.’  

The students are happy with Knoester’s response. ‘I don’t think the board realized this was a problem’, Adnan says. And maybe not all study rooms have to be open on the weekend, she offers. ‘Even if it is just the Duisenberg Building, because that is the biggest study space on Zernike.’ 

Budin would opt for the Bernoulliborg. ‘The Duisenberg is mostly for students of economics and business’, he says. ‘So perhaps for FSE the Bernoulliborg would be better.’ 

UMCG scholarship PhDs threaten to sue for equal pay

Threatening to sue

UMCG scholarship PhDs demand equal pay

A group of 58 UMCG scholarship PhDs are demanding retroactive equal pay from the RUG. They’re threatening to sue if they don’t get it.
11 December om 10:42 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 16 December 2019
om 10:37 uur.
December 11 at 10:42 AM.
Last modified on December 16, 2019
at 10:37 AM.

Christien Boomsma

Door Christien Boomsma

11 December om 10:42 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 16 December 2019
om 10:37 uur.
Christien Boomsma

By Christien Boomsma

December 11 at 10:42 AM.
Last modified on December 16, 2019
at 10:37 AM.

The conflict between the UMCG and the scholarship PhDs started back in January. The MD/PhDs – PhD students in a special programme who are both getting a degree and studying to be a medical doctor – submitted an official complaint against their status as student at the UMCG. They felt they were doing the same work as employed PhD students and demand to be paid the same. 

Their demand mirror that of scholarship PhDs who last week published a manifesto demanding the national experiment, which sees them getting a scholarship rather than a work contract, be stopped. 667 people have since signed this manifesto, including two hundred scholarship PhDs.

UMCG points to the RUG

‘Back then, we made an attempt to reach an agreement through meetings between a representative of the students and a delegation from the UMCG board of directors’, says lawyer Dino Jongsma, who is representing the group on behalf of the Landelijke vereniging van Artsen in Dienstverband. ‘But the UMCG pulled out.’ 

The MD/PhDs objected to this on July 29. ‘Since then, the UMCG is being represented by law firm PlassBossinade’, says Jongsma. ‘Any and all contact has gone through them.’

Last Monday, the UMCG came out with a reaction that said the PhDs had gone to the wrong authority. ‘The complaint was addressed to the director of the Graduate School Medical Sciences’, says UMCG spokesperson Joost Wessels. ‘But he is not the qualified authority in this case and his letter is not an appealable decision they can complain about.

In other words, the UMCG should never have made the decision. They say the ‘qualified authority’ in this case is the RUG. ‘We’ve forwarded the original letter dated January 21 to the board of directors’, says Wessels. ‘They will make a decision as soon as possible.’

This is a setback for the PhDs, who have been waiting almost a year for a response to their complaint from January. 

New complaint procedure

Jongsma said earlier that he is undaunted by the negative decision. ‘It’s fine’, he said. ‘It’ll mean we’ll have an actual case. These PhDs want to be treated equally. But we can’t start a case until this procedure has concluded.’ 

Now, the PhDs have to wait for the RUG to make a decision. If that decision is negative, they’ll have to start another complaint procedure. 

PlasBossinade lawyer Robert van der Velde confirms that he is representing the UMCG in this case, but says he can’t comment. 

RUG wants to add another 650 scholarship PhDs

The RUG wants to request 650 new scholarship PhDs as part of the national experiment with doctoral education. But the university council is critical of the plans. Especially after a large group of scholarship PhDs published a manifesto demanding an end to the experiment.
By Christien Boomsma / Translation by Sarah van Steenderen

The RUG says the PhD scholarship programme is going well. More students have been given the opportunity to write a doctoral thesis than before. They also have more freedom in their proposal.

This is why the RUG wants to request 650 of the available spots in the second round of the scholarship PhD experiment, in which PhDs aren’t employed by the university, but receive an 1800 euro ‘student’ scholarship.

The university council is critical of the plans. Their worries are compounded by the manifesto the scholarship PhDs recently published, which has the support of eight PhD councils and which has already collected more than five hundred signatures.

Support

‘There is absolutely no support for this experiment in the PhD community’, Simon van der Pol with the personnel faction said during the committee meeting on Thursday. ‘That’s the least that’s needed as an argument to continue the experiment.

Lorenzo Squintani, with the science faction, also remains unconvinced. ‘Perhaps they don’t recognise themselves in the rose-coloured results from earlier studies’, he said. He thinks that’s why they published the manifesto, which is also supported by the Promovendi Netwerk Nederland. ‘They want to raise awareness of the position they’re in.’

Manifesto

Lou de Leij, Dean of Graduate Schools, is unimpressed. He says that many of the points raised in the manifesto are simply untrue. And if the PhD students do run into issues, they should report this so the issues can be resolved. ‘Many of them can be resolved. Not in all cases of course, because they do have a different status.’

He also says the claim that PhDs are forced to teach is incorrect. ‘If that does happen, they should come to us. We’ll act on it.’

He realised that people sometimes feel morally pressured to teach. ‘‘But that’s their own choice.’ He also suggested that the Promovendi Netwerk Nederland is behind the manifesto, rather than the Groningen scholarship PhDs.

Dream

Van der Pol refuted this. ‘I started hearing about this manifesto back in July, and I talked to the initiators in September. I’m certain that this was published by the PhDs themselves. PNN got involved later.’

Rector magnificus Cisca Wijmenga emphasised that the PhD experiment is just that, an experiment. ‘It’s naive to think that an experiment will immediately go well. We have to learn as an organisation, so perhaps we should change some things in the secondary employment conditions. I don’t know.’

She wants people to realise that the programme has done a lot of good, and that it enables many PhD students to ‘chase their dreams’.

Not convinced

The council factions aren’t convinced. They want more insight into the costs: how much will it cost if the university pays every scholarship PhD the same as employed PhDs, but without, for example, the end of year and holiday bonuses.

They also want to see a policy in place to prevent abuses, rather than the current approach of handling problems as they come up. ‘If you have forty PhDs, you can solve problems one on one. You can’t do the same for 850 of them, and certainly not when you add another 650.’

Right to consent

The council also wants the right to consent to a second round of the PhD experiment. The previous board of directors had granted this right, but minister Van Engelshoven says its not necessary if the conditions of the experiment don’t change.

The personnel factions say adding 650 new scholarship PhDs will have so much impact that this justifies the right to consent.

PhD manifesto: We are compelled to take action ourselves

PhD manifesto: We are compelled to take action ourselves

A group of around twenty PhD’s demands immediate termination of the experiment with scholarship PhD’s. It creates inequality and negatively influences their work and private lives, they say in a manifesto.
3 December om 8:39 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 3 December 2019
om 15:13 uur.
December 3 at 8:39 AM.
Last modified on December 3, 2019
at 15:13 PM.

We, the PhD students of the University of Groningen (UG) scholarship experiment, present this shortened manifesto to address the financial inequality and insecurity induced by the experiment, which affect our research, our working prospects and our private life. Due to our student status, we are not represented by a labour union (such as the Vakbond voor de Wetenschap). Therefore, we are compelled to take action ourselves.

The official aim of the experiment as stated in the decree on the PhD training programme experiment is: ‘(…) to investigate whether, by introducing a new PhD programme as the third cycle in the Bachelor’s-Master’s system (…), the number of university PhD graduates will increase, whether opportunities for PhD students to submit and carry out their own research proposals will improve and whether the position of PhD graduates in the labour market will improve, thereby advancing the knowledge society’.

Aim of the experiment

Even though the experiment has facilitated the creation of more PhD positions than there would usually be available, the experiment fails to take into account the well-being of the PhD students. On the one hand, PhD students principally do the same work as PhD employee, regardless of the differences in the contractual positions. Therefore, the unequal and unfavourable treatment of PhD students is unjustified.

On the other hand, the experiment has disproportionately negative consequences for all important aspects of the life of a PhD student as the ’advantages’ that the Experiment should bring about do not exist in practice (such as writing one’s own research proposals, which is also a conventional practice among PhD employees); PhD students lack a significant amount of (financial) benefits and legal protection; PhD students teach for free (whereas PhD employees and student-assistants are paid for the same work); PhD students are represented by Bachelor’s and Master’s students (and not by PhD candidates or other employees) who are unable to understand and represent our interests; and PhD students were not provided with adequate information prior to signing the scholarship contract.

Termination

Hence, the experiment has adverse effects on the research climate in the UG, which by the decree can be taken as a basis for termination of the experiment. In the event the experiment ends prematurely or otherwise, the decree states that: ‘(…) the universities will give the PhD training-programme students who have not yet graduated the opportunity to complete the PhD programme as employees of the university’. We, the signatories, therefore ask for:

  1. Termination of the experiment in the UG/University Medical Center Groningen (UMCG).
  2. Equality, meaning that, in accordance with the decree, PhD scholarship students are given the choice to convert their scholarship contract to an appointment (or as of 1 January 2020 an employment contract) as there are no significant differences between both positions.
  3. Compensation for the work done on a scholarship contract by the exact payment differences, including vacation allowance and 13th-month bonus.

Sincerely,

Martha Buit, Scholarship PhD at the Faculty of Law, on behalf of the initiators of the manifesto

You can read the complete manifesto here.