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Should PhDs accept to have a mere student status?

Dutch debate on PhD status hinges between student and employee

The Dutch Labour Party Minister for Education, Culture and Science, Jet Bussemaker, has recently proposed a new experiment examining the status of doctoral candidates by allowing universities to hire them as students with a bursary, rather than as full employees. This initiative was introduced despite the fact that it goes against the advice of the advice of the Dutch Council of State—the advisory body to the government. The proposal has triggered an intense public debate on the status of PhDs in the country.

The status of doctoral candidates varies greatly between and within institutions, countries, and the academic world at large. Sometimes PhDs are treated as most other similarly qualified workers. Their work is subject to an employment contract, which afford them decent compensation and provides them with social security. This has traditionally been the case in countries like Denmark or the Netherlands.

But in many other countries doctoral candidates will not be treated so well. They will be classed as students, receive limited compensation for their work, and have little to no social security rights. Still other countries have mixed the two together, as can be seen from the 2012 Eurodoc Survey I, which looked at the working conditions of doctoral candidates in 12 European countries.

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One might imagine that countries like The Netherlands, where doctoral candidates are fully employees, would be proud of their system. Particularly if it provides all young researchers with fair working conditions as full members of their institutions and of the research community. But it turns out that it is not the case. For some years now, the Dutch universities have been trying to recruit doctoral candidates as students. In the process they have attempted to deny them access to certain social benefits such as unemployment pay, paid parental leave and pension contributions. The latest move by Labour Party Minister Bussemaker to try and review the status of PhD candidates is only the latest episode in a long running saga.

The Dutch universities have been arguing in favour of student status, suggesting that it would be an additional form of promotion to complement existing ones. The student PhDs would, they say, help improve quality by catering to the diverse research environment we live in, and will make the Dutch system more compatible with systems from other countries. But many other organisations, like the PhD Candidates Network of the Netherlands disagree. They argue instead that this change will lead to a decrease in the quality of PhD research, and cite negative experiences from the past.

One might expect that decent and fair employment conditions are afforded to all workers. And it is also expected that universities, and other employers, should not be in any position to exploit those who work for them. But this is exactly what student status doctoral candidates in the Netherlands will allow. We would end up with a situation in which many people are being asked to work for their institution, to teach and to produce research—all of which is used to assess the work of the university—without basic social security and without being treated as full members of the academic community.

The recent Dutch proposal goes against previous advances at European level to protect the working conditions of researchers. This is the case with the European Charter for Researchers, which is now 10 year old. It recommends that all researchers, including doctoral candidates, be regarded as professionals and treated accordingly. Howeve , the Charter has failed to be widely implemented and has not been made mandatory for recipient of Horizon 2020 grants.

Meanwhile, other organisations have made stronger, more specific statements on the status of PhDs. The European Trade Union Committee for Education, in its recently adopted policy paper, has called for doctoral candidates to be recognised as employees, ‘with all the social and professional rights of other employees.’ This position is similar to that expressed by the European University Association (EUA) in the Salzburg II Recommendations.

For the EUA, however, the status of student versus employee is less relevant than the rights that are afforded to candidates. In their 2007 report on doctoral programmes, they stated that ‘Whatever the status of a doctoral candidate is, it is crucial that s/he is given all commensurate rights including healthcare, social security and pension rights.‘ Thus the position of the Dutch universities goes against what is considered good practice at the European level.

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The scholarship system does not serve to better accommodate the varied paths leading to a doctorate. Not paying social security and pension contributions cannot help improve quality in doctoral research. This scheme is simply a means of saving the universities money by exploiting doctoral candidates through substandard employment conditions. It is a step back rather than forward for PhDs in Europe.

John Peacock

John is the Eurodoc President

What needs to be done to improve researchers working conditions?
Do you belive the Dutch proposal goes against European good practice?

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