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.’
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.