Thirty years of scholarship PhDs

Will this be another failed bursary experiment?

The scholarship PhDs are becoming more vocal in their protests against the bursary experiment. The Faculties of Law and Philosophy are – partially – opting out. Will this be another failed attempt to turn PhDs into students?

Christien Boomsma

Door Christien Boomsma

5 February om 11:56 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 5 February 2020
om 12:20 uur.
Christien Boomsma

By Christien Boomsma

February 5 at 11:56 AM.
Last modified on February 5, 2020
at 12:20 PM.
Christien Boomsma

Christien Boomsma

Achtergrondcoördinator en wetenschapsredacteur
Volledig bio
Achtergrondcoördinator en wetenschapsredacteur
Full bio

When rector magnificus Cisca Wijmenga started her PhD in the eighties, she was one of the first research trainees ever. She was docked 45 percent of her salary, since she was a ‘student’. The employed PhD candidates she worked with made almost twice as much. ‘I let that bother me for about a week’, she says. ‘I stopped thinking about it after that and just made the best of my time.’

She feels the current scholarship PhDs should do as she did. The fact remains that there are different kinds of PhDs and not everyone has the same employment terms. ‘That contrast is being taken entirely out of context.’ Saying that everyone without employment status is ‘disadvantaged’ doesn’t solve anything. 

Wijmenga stands entirely behind the experiment, which allows universities to pay PhDs an 1840 euro scholarship rather than hire them as employees. ‘It means more young people get to make their dreams come true’, she says emphatically. It also means that researchers won’t have to spend as much time writing subsidy applications for projects that need PhD candidates. In other words: this new and looser system also leads to a decrease in work stress for regular staff. 


Nevertheless, just one year after the first scholarship PhDs started their work, complaints have started surfacing. In December, they culminated in a manifesto in which the PhDs demand an end to the experiment. It was signed by 239 scholarship PhDs, as well as unions and nine Groningen PhD councils.

There are two different positions, of course that’s uncomfortable

Kees Aarts

As a result, many faculty graduate schools talked to their PhDs, and the law faculty decided to not hire any full-time scholarship PhDs this year. The Faculty of Philosophy’s decision to quit the experiment came even earlier. The faculty says that having two types of PhD candidates is ‘not desirable’. 

But the theology, business, behavioural sciences, and arts faculties decided they were just fine, although they conceded that information towards the PhDs could be provided better. ‘We’re doing pretty well, because we’re sticking to the rules’, says Rian Drogendijk, director of the FEB graduate school. ‘But the manifesto does indicate the dissatisfaction at other faculties.’ She says she wants to be ‘cautious’. ‘We’ve only got a small number of PhDs.’

Very important

Kees Aarts, the dean at BSS, acknowledges that some people aren’t happy with the experiment. ‘We’ve got two different kinds of positions in which people essentially do the same thing; writing their thesis. If one of those positions is significantly less attractive, of course that’s uncomfortable.’ But, he says: ‘It does mean we’ve been able to allow more people to write their thesis.’ He says the discrepancy is unavoidable. ‘That’s why it’s an experiment.’

Other graduate schools, including the one at the Faculty of Spatial Sciences, have plans to talk to their scholarship PhDs to get a sense of how they feel and what steps they might need to take.

One thing is certain: the experiment is very important to the RUG. Last year, 30 percent of PhDs at the RUG, 788 people in total, were paid a scholarship. The new system is supposed to boost the number of theses from five hundred to six hundred a year.

Another advantage is that the experiment makes it easier appoint PhDs. ‘We’re located kind of out of the way, after all’, says Wijmenga. ‘That makes it harder for us to recruit people.’ That’s why many of the scholarship PhDs come from abroad or are people who wrote a thesis proposal during their research master, which means they almost automatically move up. 

Previous attempts

This particular course was started approximately fifteen years ago, under previous board president Sibrand Poppema. But universities have been trying to assign PhD candidates the cheaper status of student for the past thirty years. They have failed every time.

Incessant complaints, as well as a strike by the research trainees at the Groningen Kapteyn Institute, meant that the 45 percent cut to PhD salaries was cancelled in 2000. 

The scholarship is the difference between research remuneration and nothing at all

Nynke Jo Smit

An attempt by the University of Amsterdam also failed after a decade of lawsuits and protests to the High Court in 2004. The verdict was that PhD candidates have a working relationship with their university and should be paid accordingly. 

Nevertheless, the next year the RUG decided to recruit bursary PhD students. At first, they only approached internationals, but switched to Dutch PhDs soon after. Another lawsuit followed, which the PhDs lost on appeal in 2013. But the RUG was forced to put a stop to the bursary experiment after the tax authorities said the arrangement ‘wasn’t fiscally based on national law’.

Rotterdam opts out

This did give the minister the opportunity to solve that problem. When she announced the current experiment in 2015, the RUG welcomed it with open arms. Of the two thousand positions available, the RUG claimed 850 for the first round and 650 for the second. The Erasmus University in Rotterdam asked for fifteen. Other universities, however, decided not to participate, and Rotterdam also declined a second round of scholarship PhDs.


The Rotterdam International Institute of Social Studies (ISS), which funded the PhDs, wanted to use the scholarship to recruit PhDs from outside the EU. ‘The experiment scholarship means the difference between remuneration that enables focusing on your PhD research full time, or not doing anything’, says Nynke Jo Smit with the ISS. It did work, she says, but a new round of applications would be ‘too great an assault on the available means’.

The University of Twente also considered participating, since the scholarship might be good for internationals. ‘But that would only apply for the duration of the experiment, which means the inequality we were trying to get rid of comes back in another form’, says Paul van Dijk, director of the Twente Graduate School. 

The UvA says the experiment didn’t fit in with their ‘human resources policy’ at the time and that this ‘hasn’t changed’ since. A fracas in Nijmegen, which briefly offered three scholarship PhD positions with much worse employment terms than those of Groningen, also showed that they weren’t ready for it. The positions were cancelled. ‘The Radboud University doesn’t consider PhD candidates students’, the board of directors hastened to say in a statement.


Wijmenga and Marjan Koopmans, project manager at the Groningen Graduate Schools, are frustrated. ‘It’s not like other universities condemn the experiment’, says Koopmans. ‘But everyone’s watching as we’re getting lambasted. That kind of sucks.’ 

It sucks that the RUG is getting lambasted

Marjan Koopmans 

‘If you stick your neck out’, Wijmenga adds, ‘you run the risk of getting your head cut off. But if the minister decides to figure out the legislation, it’ll be a different story altogether.’ She says the RUG isn’t doing anything particularly weird. ‘People are making out like the RUG came up with this kooky idea on its own. But it was the minister’s idea.’ 

The top-up scholarship, where lower international grants are supplemented to the level of other scholarship PhDs, worked out so well that politicians want to implement it throughout the country. Wijmenga: ‘We’re a trendsetter.’

The contracts were approved by the tax authorities. The RUG pays premiums to make sure the PhDs have a right to unemployment benefits and pregnancy leave, although they’re not earning a pension or getting vacation pay. ‘But the people who are happy about their situation don’t speak up’, says Wijmenga. 


Nevertheless, the number of signatures on the manifesto is slowly increasing. On Tuesday, a delegation of the Groningen PhDs and the Promovendi Network Nederland (PNN) presented the manifesto to the standing parliamentary committee. ‘The RUG largely ignored the manifesto’, says PNN president Lucille Mattijssen. 

The PhD councils who signed the manifesto also still support it. ‘As PhDs we disapprove of the terms of the bursary system’, the arts PhD council said in an e-mail. The spatial sciences PhD council said: ‘We still strongly support the manifesto. The manifesto resonates with the sentiment many PhD scholarship students have at our faculty.’

We’ve done this in a manner we think is fair

Cisca Wijmenga

But Wijmenga and Koopmans aren’t worried. Not even about the potential of lawsuits that people have been increasingly talking about. ‘Sure, we’d like to avoid that’, says Koopmans. ‘We’ve done this within the rules of the experiment and in a manner we think is fair. After all, the minister provided us with the opportunity here’, says Wijmenga. ‘But then freelancers could also sue to get hired on a permanent basis.’

What if this experiment fails, just like the previous attempts? In accordance with the rules the minister set up when the experiment started, the RUG would have to compensate the scholarship PhDs hundreds of euros a month. Wijmenga: ‘We’ve taken that into account. We wouldn’t go bankrupt.’

It would be a shame, though. ‘I’m so proud of this experiment’, she says. ‘I support it completely. I think we did well.’

Translation by Sarah van Steenderen