University

Scholarship PhDs are fed up

Unequal and undervalued

PhDs demand immediate termination of the experiment that allows the university to give them a scholarship rather than pay them an employees’ salary. It’s unjust and creates inequality and insecurity, they say in a manifesto that was signed over a hundred times already.
By Christien Boomsma / Photo by Reyer Boxem

Kostas Karpouzas had been working alongside his colleague for months. Both were slaving over their PhD research in astronomy. Both were teaching classes. One day, they were having lunch together, discussing their respective salaries. When Karpouzas told his fellow PhD what he was getting every month, his friend was silent for a moment. ‘Oh my, I’m really overpaid’, he mused.

Karpouzas’ friend didn’t mean to say he didn’t deserve the money he was earning. But he’d had no idea that while he earned 2,300 euros a month, his colleague only got 1,800 for doing the exact same job. ‘He realised it wasn’t fair’, Karpouzas says.

But Karpouzas’ colleague didn’t even know the whole story. Because he doesn’t have any pension rights, Karpouzas doesn’t get an annual bonus. When he finishes his dissertation, there will be no unemployment benefits, no travel allowance, no holiday allowance, no relocation support. These are all benefits that his colleague does get. But hey… at least Karpouzas gets a discount at the ACLO or USVA.

National experiment

What is the reason for this huge difference? Kostas Karpouzas is a scholarship PhD and part of a national experiment that, instead of employing him, allows the university to give him a scholarship of around 1,800 euros a month to write his dissertation in four years. His colleague is a ‘regular’ PhD candidate and is employed by the university, which means he gets both the salary and the social benefits that go along with that.

The proposed benefits are non-existent and don’t make up for what we lack

The idea behind it is that scholarship PhDs have more freedom. They don’t have to teach – unless they choose to. They may write their own research proposal and are free to work when they choose. The university benefits as well. Scholarship PhDs are much cheaper, which means the RUG can hire more of them and get more research done.

However, many scholarship PhDs feel that they’re being treated unfairly, and that the RUG hasn’t justified why they’re treating them differently. Research suggests they run higher risks for depression and other mental problems, due to the insecurity of their position. Even when they try to voice their dissatisfaction by filling out surveys and talking to supervisors, department heads or graduate schools, nobody listens.

Inequality and insecurity

They are fed up. This Tuesday, a group of approximately twenty scholarship PhDs published a manifesto, demanding immediate termination of the PhD experiment. They ask to be treated – and paid – the same as their fellows and to be compensated for the work done on a scholarship contract.

‘The proposed benefits are non-existent, or they don’t make up for the benefits we lack’, explains Martha Buit, one of the students behind the manifesto. ‘The experiment has induced significant inequality and insecurity. It negatively affects our research, our working prospects, and our private life.’

They feel the manifesto is the only way to be heard, she says, voicing not only her own opinion, but also that of her co-initiators. ‘Interests are not aligned, and the university has a lot at stake with this experiment. The university seems to be a business that is here to make a profit. And we are obviously the goods.’

She realises that earlier surveys suggested everything was fine. However, those surveys have been harshly criticised. It has been suggested that they didn’t ask the right questions – about the researchers’ well-being and job satisfaction, for example. ‘It’s not to say that the experiment has had no positive effects at all’, says Buit. ‘There are sure to be PhD students who are satisfied. But others – and we believe this is the majority – are fed up with the situation.’

Fake news

Their criticism is consistently trivialised, she says. Dean of Graduate Schools Lou de Leij even called the scholarship PhDs’ concerns ‘fake news’ in an earlier article on UKrant, a statement that many of them will not soon forget. De Leij has the power to make statements like these, because many scholarship PhDs are afraid to speak out. ‘There is a hierarchy’, says Buit. ‘Acting out might cause conflict and the PhD student is the less powerful one in the relationship.’

Several other PhDs withdrew after a talk with their supervisors

She was the only one of the initiators who dared to step forward as a spokesperson. Anything she says about the manifesto has been previously discussed with and agreed upon by her colleagues. Those who signed the manifesto are similarly afraid. ‘Several other PhDs initially wanted to come forward to the media’, Buit explains, ‘but they withdrew after a talk with their supervisors.’

Karpouzas, who signed and isn’t afraid to talk, understands that. ‘You need your supervisors or professors if you want to get anywhere in science. Not saying anything is the safe choice.’

He does think it is important to speak up. Students don’t realise what they’re getting themselves into when they apply for a scholarship. ‘They’re in love with science. They romanticise their great future.’ He did too. When you’re still a student, 1,800 euros a month often seems like a lot of money.

Masquerade

After a couple of months, the reality of the situation will sink in. ‘I started noticing that the people around me were being paid so much more’, says Bauke Molenaar, who didn’t want his real name published. ‘You feel like: why am I doing this? I might as well be sitting behind the register at the Zeeman.’

Not that he got in it for the money. He just hadn’t realised that being treated differently would make him feel unappreciated, or that his colleagues’ constant barrage of jokes about his crappy situation would make him feel so bad. He hadn’t realised that saving money would be practically impossible, with vacations often out of the question. PhDs may want to buy a house, have children, or have to financially support family members. ‘And it’s not like you can negotiate the contract’, Molenaar says. ‘The RUG just tells you to sign on the dotted line.’

It’s very unjust, he feels. ‘The reality of the experiment only exists on paper. Everybody knows that. At my department they say: yes, it’s a masquerade. But what can you do? It’s just the way it is.’

The experiment suggests that students don’t have to teach unless they want to. Yet almost all of them do. They have to, because without teaching experience, they don’t stand a chance of getting a job in academia later on. Colleagues will also judge you if you opt out of teaching. ‘You’re supposed to pitch in. Do your part’, Molenaar says.

Second job

They’re not paid for the teaching they do, because that would suggest they were actual employees. Scholarship PhD Martin Herz, who also signed the manifesto, was extremely frustrated by this. He had been teaching for two years before starting his PhD and has an official teaching qualification. As a PhD, he led work groups, filled in for colleagues, supervised exams and helped grade them. He did it all for free. ‘I talked about it to the management. Everybody agreed that I should be paid, but they were not allowed to do so.’

Everybody agreed that I should be paid for my work, but they were not allowed to do so

When a master student teaches, which happens quite often, they do get paid. Herz, who really needed the money, eventually took a second job at a law firm. ‘But then I was summoned to the Graduate School and told that I wasn’t supposed to do that. I get it, of course: they are worried for the research. But if they don’t want me to do that, they shouldn’t have come up with this contract.’

The experiment also suggests that PhDs are free to write their own research proposal. Molenaar did so. It turned out, however, that his employed PhD colleague was allowed to do exactly the same. Even the freedom to take time off isn’t any different. ‘All academics are relatively free to work when and where they want’, says Karpouzas. Still, the work has to be done. ‘If you take that freedom, it’ll work against you’, he says.

Future elsewhere

Karpouzas, Molenaar, and Herz were full of hopes and dreams when they started. Now, all three are looking for a future elsewhere. ‘I was so stressed’, Karpouzas says. ‘I had to help out my parents financially, I couldn’t even take a vacation, and I could hardly sustain myself.’

They say the experiment doesn’t work the way it was supposed to. They want it to stop, right now. ‘If it continues, current and future PhD students will have to keep dealing with the inequality we face and other negative consequences’, Buit says. ‘We want to avoid the continuation of the experiment at any cost. It amounts to such inequality that neither the RUG nor the Minister of Education, Culture and Science should stand for it.’

An shortened version of the manifesto has been published as op-ed.

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