Taking Stock: Making Sense of the Debate surrounding the PhD Bursary Programme

Taking Stock: Making Sense of the Debate surrounding the PhD Bursary Programme

By Manuel Reyes and Betsy van Drie

In the last few weeks, an outbreak of news articles, manifestos and rumours erupted surrounding the re-application of the University of Groningen (UG) to the PhD Bursary Programme. In the most general sense, this Programme, deemed “The Experiment”[i] by the Dutch Ministry of Education, Culture and Science, entails that PhDs can be accepted as students at a University to do their dissertation instead as employees. This means that these bursary PhDs will receive a scholarship from their university but will not have employee status and the benefits that come along with that. In turn, the student-PhD was promised more freedom to design their own research and the freedom to choose not to teach. Although sounding promising, the experiment has been controversial since its beginning in 2016. In this article, we will try to make sense of the debate surrounding UG’s re-application by reviewing the goals of the Programme step by step.

The Goals

Although open to all universities in the Netherlands, only the UG and the Erasmus University Rotterdam[ii] (EUR) took part in the first round of The Experiment starting back in 2016. While the Erasmus University ‘experimented’ with the promise to take on 15 bursary PhDs over the next few years, the UG had a more substantial share of 850 students. The rationale[iii] behind the altered PhD-trajectory was to strengthen the third cycle (after Bachelor and Master) of education by increasing the amount of PhDs in the Netherlands, improving the position of PhD within the labour market, and by offering more possibilities for PhDs to design and realise their own research proposals.

Increase of PhDs positions

A bursary PhD will receive about 1700€ per month[iv], which is about 20% lower than what a university needs to pay an employee-PhD. Additionally, certain benefits[v]  that come along with an employee-status, do not have to be granted to bursaries. So next to a lesser pay, they have to do without holiday money, the thirteenth month or the possibility to build up their pension. Because the costs per PhD will decrease, a university can increase the total amount of positions available. This was needed, according to the advocates of Experiment, since the Netherlands was lacking behind internationally, and especially the Scandinavian countries were doing much better. However, since 2000 the number of PhDs in the Netherlands has doubled. If we compare the numbers to the rest of Europe, the Netherlands has been part of the top 5 EU countries[vi] with the most PhDs per 1000 inhabitants for the last six years. The Netherlands, Sweden, The United Kingdom and Austria all have an average around 1.6, which places them only behind Germany with 2.2 PhD per 1000 inhabitants. Moreover, in the Scandinavian countries PhDs mostly have an employee status[vii].

The Association of Cooperating Dutch Universities (VSNU) also reports[viii] that introducing the Netherlands to the bursary system will lead to a more easy cooperation between European universities. According to the advocates of the Experiment, the Bologna process argues for the importance of harmonizing the European ‘PhD-market’ after successfully introducing the Bachelor and Master phase. Most European countries maintain a mixture of the two systems, so they have both bursary and employee PhDs. The Bologna process does not ask of the participating countries to give all PhDs the same (legal) status. In fact, in the Salzburg Recommendation[ix] (part of the Bologna process) it is stated that PhDs have to be qualified as “early stage researchers [that] should be recognised as professionals – with commensurate rights”.

            The UG promised[x] to raise the total amount of available position with 20%. However, in the 2016-agreement it is included that the increase in bursary PhDs cannot stand in the way of the university hiring employee-PhDs. The numbers of the influx of employee-PhDs[xi] at the UG have dropped since 2016. In a letter to Parliament[xii], the minister Van Engelshoven has acknowledged that this is a result of the policy choice to reserve the resources from the first money flow for bursary PhDs, which before were used to hire employee PhDs. The actions by the UG are therefore in direct contradiction to this part of the agreement made in 2016.

            In the past years, the available positions at the RUG did increase with about 20%. The share of Dutch numbers remained the same in absolute terms, but dropped in relative terms, from 53% in 2012 to 44% in 2018[xiii]. It was feared beforehand that the UG would not be attractive anymore to international PhD-candidates. As it turns out, the UG has become less attractive to Dutch candidates in comparison to international candidates. The minister has evaluated this critically and stressed the importance of being “both attractive to Dutch and international PhD students.” Other universities in the Netherlands have not, and will not in the immediate future, install the bursary programme and therefore will grant PhDs employee status. If the UG applies to a second round, Dutch candidates that want to stay in the Netherlands will be pushed to the other universities.

            To have more PhDs is mostly an advantage for the university. Per successful promotion the university receives money from the government. Between 2009 and 2017, this amounted to about € 80.000 to € 93.000 per graduation. But the amount per promotion differs per year because it depends on the total amount of PhDs in the Netherlands. Since 2016, the maximum of the total amount was set at 20 percent of the budget of academic research. This total budget does not grow in accordance with the growth of the number of PhDs in the Netherlands. This means that the amount a university gets per promotion shrinks each year. The University of Groningen benefits if they allow more PhDs because of the competition with other Dutch universities to have an equal or bigger share of this money.

            For the bursaries themselves, more PhDs mean more competition for the positions that are waiting after the promotion. This brings us to the examination of the second goal, that of an improved position in the labour market.

Improved position in the labour market

The first bursary students will not be promoted until 2020. Since the average promotion time for PhDs at the RUG is 5 years[xiv], most of the ones started in 2016 will only be done in 2021. The effects on their position in the labour market  will only then become apparent. What is clear is that with ‘an improved position in the labour market’ the makers of the Experiment did not mean a prospect to an academic career.

The bursary-PhDs have been promised to have an improved position in the labour market. Since the PhD-student has the right to education, the university will provide workshops and lectures that are pointed towards their respective job market and how to profile themselves for future employers. The EUR and RUG have offered[xv] bursary students education pointed towards non-academic career perspective. So a bursary student might be better prepared for jobs, it just might not be one within academia. 

This effect is amplified by the fact that bursary students are not asked to teach next to the work on their dissertation. They are allowed to if they want to, but they do not have to teach. In practice, however, bursary students do not feel like they enjoy this much freedom in this choice. This is one of the main points of criticism voiced by bursary PhDs in the Manifesto[xvi] published by the Promovendi Netwerk Nederland (PNN). For later positions in academia, bursary PhDs are competing with each other but also with employee PhDs. Employee PhDs who often teach have a better position in the academic labour market. Bursary PhDs can teach but they will not be paid for it. If a bursary PhD wants a paid teaching job, it has to be elsewhere and it cannot be against the interest of their own university. This is especially distressing, when a bursary PhD compares their position to that of a student assistant. These are BA- and MA-students that have an appointment at the university and do get paid for their teaching efforts.

To have a chance of an academic career, a PhD has to teach; bursary or not. This (un)freedom brings us to the last goal, that of more academic freedom to design research projects.

More academic freedom

A bursary PhD is granted more freedom to decide on the design of their research project. It is one of the main advantages to ‘choose’ for the bursary route. It is argued that from the perspective of the university, this is beneficial since it will generate more independent and innovative research.

From the latest self-evaluation[xvii] of the UG it becomes apparent that the independency of bursaries compared to employee PhDs has improved. While 48.5% of the research projects by employee-PhDs are completely or mostly designed by their supervisor, this is the case for 24.1% of the bursaries. Although this might be an improvement, still only 5.8% of bursaries have designed their project entirely on their own, which is the selling point to future PhDs. This can be the result of the fact that 40% of the supervisors are not or barely aware of the difference between a bursary and employed PhD. This has resulted in supervisors who do not give more independency to their employed peers and expect them to teach. It shows from the data, that on average bursaries do not get more freedom to make choices regarding the direction of their project. They are expected to attend the same conferences, have to publish articles in the same journals, and have to use the same methods as employed PhDs. Therefore, it cannot be argued that this route necessarily leads to more independent innovative research if the expectations are the same for bursary and employee.

For these reasons, the Minister Van Engelshoven has been critical of the Experiment. Last year, she concluded[xviii] that the Experiment will not be continued. Her explicit reason[xix] was that no other university had shown interest and that it therefore would not have any added value to see whether the Experiment is working out. However, through an effort[xx] of CDA, VVD, SGP and PVV, the Experiment opened up for a second round. Their argument was that it was never a criterium for the starting of the second round to have a wider variety of universities participating. Their motion was accepted with support of FvD, Denk and 50Plus, last June. Although it was never a requirement, in 2015 then minister Jet Bussemaker stated[xxi] in reaction to questions of Parliament that the option to enter the Experiment in a second round was only included for universities for which the deadline to apply for the first round came too quickly. From this statement, it can be concluded that it was not the intention that the UG would also participate in a second round.

The Board of the UG has, as the only Dutch university, shown interest to prolong the Experiment with an extra 650 PhD bursaries. This Thursday, the University Council of Groningen will be officially informed of the application to the second round. Right now, the Council does not have the right to discuss this since it is merely for their ‘information’. To have 650 extra PhD bursaries on top of the 850 from the first round, cannot be called an Experiment anymore. It is a policy to cut costs at the expense of 1500 PhDs.


[i] https://www.tweedekamer.nl/kamerstukken/brieven_regering/detail?id=2015Z02296&did=2015D04660

[ii] https://www.tweedekamer.nl/kamerstukken/brieven_regering/detail?id=2019Z13766&did=2019D28281, page 1

[iii] https://www.tweedekamer.nl/kamerstukken/brieven_regering/detail?id=2019Z13766&did=2019D28281

[iv] https://democratischeacademie.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/07.04-241-Internal-evaluation-experiment-PhD-scholarships-students.pdf, page 32 / 33 of the PDF

[v] https://hetpnn.nl/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/Manifest-tegen-experiment-promotieonderwijs.pdf, page 2f.

[vi] https://rio.jrc.ec.europa.eu/en/stats/new-doctoral-graduates-thousand-population-aged-25-34

[vii] https://www.scienceguide.nl/2019/06/we-hebben-helemaal-niet-meer-studentpromovendi-nodig/

[viii] https://www.vsnu.nl/promotiestudent.html

[ix] https://eua.eu/downloads/publications/salzburg%20recommendations%202005.pdf

[x] https://democratischeacademie.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/3.1-040-Verslag-Universiteitsraad-25-februari-20161.pdf, page 4

[xi] https://www.vsnu.nl/files/documenten/Feiten_en_Cijfers/Overzichten_Promovendi_2017.xlsx excel file of the VSNU.

[xii] https://www.tweedekamer.nl/kamerstukken/brieven_regering/detail?id=2019Z13766&did=2019D28281

[xiii] https://www.tweedekamer.nl/kamerstukken/brieven_regering/detail?id=2019Z13766&did=2019D28281

[xiv] https://www.vsnu.nl/f_c_promovendi.html

[xv] https://www.tweedekamer.nl/kamerstukken/kamervragen/detail?id=2018Z14737&did=2018D43923

[xvi] https://hetpnn.nl/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/Manifest-tegen-experiment-promotieonderwijs.pdf

[xvii] https://hetpnn.nl/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/Manifest-tegen-experiment-promotieonderwijs.pdf

[xviii] https://www.tweedekamer.nl/kamerstukken/kamervragen/detail?id=2018Z14737&did=2018D43923

[xix] https://www.tweedekamer.nl/kamerstukken/brieven_regering/detail?id=2019Z13766&did=2019D28281

[xx] https://www.tweedekamer.nl/kamerstukken/moties/detail?id=2019Z11363&did=2019D23398

[xxi] https://zoek.officielebekendmakingen.nl/kst-31288-437.html


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