News - February 23, 2015

Wageningen to continue to pay PhD candidates a salary

Roelof Kleis

At the moment, PhD candidates are still employees, but that may change. Universities are being allowed to experiment over the next while with grants for PhD candidates instead of a salary. Wageningen UR is not making use of that option.

The new PhD places will be cheaper  for the universities as they will  no longer be employing PhD candidates  so do not have to pay social  security contributions. Some universities  have been lobbying for  years for this form of doctoral education,  which is standard in other  countries. Now the cabinet has responded  with an experiment for  two thousand PhD candidates. The  government hopes this will let the  universities take on more PhD candidates  and also offer a better doctoral  programme.  Jeroen Candel, chair of Wageningen  UR’s PhD Council, is strongly  opposed to the experiment.

Candel  says PhD candidates should be  treated as proper university employees.  ‘PhD candidates play a  crucial role in the universities’ core  tasks. They do a lot of the research,  supervise students and teach. And  they don’t get much of a salary in  return. It is an injustice and inappropriate  to take away their social  security and pension contributions.’  The dean, Johan van Arendonk,  who is head of the graduate  schools, is also against ‘demoting  PhD candidates from employee to  student’. ‘PhD candidates make an  essential contribution to Wageningen  UR’s academic achievements.  It’s important that doing a PhD  should remain an attractive option;  an appointment as an academic  employee is part of that.’

It’s important that doing a PhD should remain an attractive option
Johan van Arendonk

On the other hand, Van Arendonk  says the experiment can benefit the  current PhD candidates working  on a scholarship. There are a lot of  these in Wageningen. They include  the ‘sandwich PhD candidates’  who are studying for their doctorate  with a scholarship from their  country of origin. Van Arendonk  says Wageningen is taking part in  the experiment on behalf of these  scholarship students in an effort  ‘to improve the arrangements for  them even further’.  Universities are being given a great  deal of freedom in how they approach  the experiment. For instance,  they can offer three-year or  five-year programmes, although  the Education minister Jet Bussemaker  is expecting most PhD programmes  to still last four years.  One of the questions to be answered  by the experiment is whether  PhD supervisors see a difference  in quality between the PhD candidates  who are students and those  who are employees.