One thing that has struck me for years is the peculiar status of people taking a PhD-degree in the Netherlands (and in a few other continental European countries – I don’t know how many exactly). They are hired by the university, as employees, to write a dissertation, and help teach about one course a year, during four years (in Belgium they may have to teach more, but in those cases they have 6 years, of which one third has to be spent on teaching, and two thirds on working towards the PhD-degree). I call this category of people pursuing a PhD-degree PhD-employees: they have a wage, the legal status and corresponding right of civil servants, rights to paid holidays and paid parental leave, and everything else that a civil servant has (except that the contract is temporary). They pay no fees for their PhD studies, and most of the additional courses they take will be paid for by their employer – the university. All universities in the Netherlands are publically funded, and hence while the employers are the universities, the funds are overwhelmingly government funds – although in principle a private party could also sponsor a PhD-employee at a university. This sometimes happens in the natural sciences – when Philips or Shell fund a PhD-position on a project that benefits them too. The cost of such a PhD-employee for 4 years is about 200.000, if we don’t count material costs and overhead at the university (some claim it’s closer to 280.000 if we include the latter).
The contrast with the status of PhD-students in England and the US is quite big, where those who are pursuing a PhD-degree are students, pay (often significant) fees in order to get training and supervision, and if they do teaching or research assistance, they get either an additional contract or they are paid by the hour. In addition to the National research councils and the universities, there are also a number of public and private organizations that provide (modest) bursaries for those PhD students.
I have, for many years, thought that there is nothing wrong to treat those pursuing a PhD-degree as students rather than as employees. In my view, they are not primarily having a job but rather pursuing a degree. And given the general scarcity of funds in the public sector, and universities in particular, it would be better if we didn’t have PhD-employees but rather PhD-students, and reallocate those funds to create additional lectureships.
Since the university wouldn’t have to pay social security and all the employer-related taxes and insurances, it would cost the Dutch government/university not about 200.000 Euro per PhD, but rather would cost them the amount of the PHD scholarship which the Dutch government (until recently) gave to non-EU students taking a degree in the Netherlands– which was about 70.000 Euro for 4 years. One could argue that this amount is too low, since one can’t live a decent life on 1460 Euro a month (which would imply that the non-EU students have been given a too small bursary in the past), and raise that amount to 100.000 Euro, which would give the PhD-students 2000 Euro a month. For the present discussion I don’t care about the exact numbers – what’s relevant is the claim that a significant amount of money could be saved if those PhD-employees became PhD-students.
The money that would be saved should be invested in hiring new lecturers, especially in those disciplines where over the last decades student numbers went up without more funds being allocated to lecturers. More lecturers are, given the vastly increased workpressure in the faculty, really badly needed. But, equally importantly, it would increase the chances of those getting a PhD degree to stay in academia within the Netherlands. And those chances are currently very low, which is generally recognized (I recall numbers that about 1 in 10 PhDs can stay in academia, whereas about 9 in 10 would like to do so).
And, what I personally find very important, in the UK and the US, PhD-students can in many (most?) cases choose their own topic, whereas in the Netherlands they have to work on the topic for which the professor could raise funds. There are exceptions, but to the best of my knowledge most PhD-employees in the Netherlands have not chosen their own topic. And since the PhD-student is an employee, she can’t change supervisors if she’s not happy, let alone transfer to another university.
Earlier this week Roland Pierik and I published an op-ed piece in the major Dutch newspaper NRC-Handelsblad, making these arguments. Reactions have been very mixed and also quite intense. The reaction of many is to say that this will worsen the socio-economic and legal position of those taking a PhD degree and is therefore a bad proposal. Yet I think it is clear that the real dispute is whether the research that the PhD-employees do is work that deserves a wage, or rather training that should be supported with a study grant. (Just to avoid misunderstandings: Our proposal would give PhD-students decent wage contracts for the research assistance or teaching which they would do).
An important argument against our proposal is that it may be impossible to get the best MA students pursue PhD-degrees if they no longer can do so as PhD-employees, but have to do so as PhD-students. If that were true, it could be a reason to go for the more expensive system. But that’s an empirical claim, for which I haven’t seen any evidence. And it still doesn’t solve the problem that they may have good working conditions while pursuing their degrees, but only a very small chance at staying in academia afterwards.
One striking observation is that those who emailed me to express support are generally scholars based in the Netherlands who got their degrees elsewhere, or who spent a long time abroad. So perhaps we Dutch academics take our PhD-system for granted, just like the Americans and the British take their system for granted?