PhD students




PhD student experiment 
In late 2015, the government ratified an Order in Council allowing universities to experiment with PhD students on a limited scale. The University of Groningen and Erasmus University Rotterdam applied to participate in the experiment in 2016. At these universities, the first PhD students started in the 2016-2017 academic year. 


Universities are disappointed that – despite the promises made earlier in the outline agreement between the Minister and the universities – admitting PhD students has still not been legally regulated. The universities do not agree with the criticism that the original bill received from the Council of State. Without proper substantiation, the Council argues that talented foreign PhD candidates will no longer come to the Netherlands if they were to receive a grant instead of an employment contract. During the current experiment, this assumption was indeed proven to be incorrect. For the record, VSNU does not see PhD students as a replacement, but rather as a welcome addition to the existing forms of pursuing a doctorate. There will always be a need for the employee PhD candidates.


The PhD student: the result of differentiation in the doctoral system


Since Dutch universities would like to attract as many talented PhD candidates as possible with their doctorate policy, they favour differentiation in the doctoral system. Only by delivering tailor-made solutions will it be possible to accommodate the various contexts that PhD candidates and universities are currently faced with. There are already many roads leading to a doctorate, such as the usual employee PhD candidates, doctoral researchers, the dual and external PhD candidates and Dutch or foreign scholarship PhD students.


Adopting a more flexible view would do justice to such varied practice. To illustrate both ends of the scale: a PhD candidate's work in some cases mainly concerns an externally financed research assignment, which makes a position as an employee rather self-evident; in other cases, the doctoral programme is more focused on the educational aspects, with all the rights and obligations that this position entails. In this light, it is important that the nature of the doctoral programme should clearly reflect the differences in position: for a student, the educational aspect takes precedence, for an employee, the assignment takes precedence. Pursuing a PhD as a student can be attractive to some because of the increased freedom and greater focus on education.


The PhD student status has not been adequately regulated outside the experiment, which has led to a great deal of ambiguity in recent years, also in terms of taxation. Make no mistake: Dutch universities still consider the employee PhD candidate position to be the most attractive form of doctoral programme. However, now that the academic world is becoming increasingly internationalised, it is of great importance for the Dutch doctoral system to be and remain in line with international developments and international standards. Most countries in Europe have a mixed system, with some PhD candidates having student status and others being employee PhD candidates, depending on the nature of the doctoral programme. In many disciplines, remuneration in line with market salaries is claimed to be necessary; when a doctoral programme is financed by contract research funding, the financing party will also have an interest in a properly regulated employer-employee relationship.


International developments are an important reason for more differentiation. Europe has been using the Bologna Process for quite some time now to improve alignment between the different higher education systems. The ultimate goal is to create a single European Higher Education Area (EHEA), in which students can easily follow parts of their degree programmes in another European country. After the successful introduction of the Bachelor-Master structure, harmonising the third cycle – the doctoral phase – is now on the European agenda. The doctoral phase will then increasingly form part of higher education, and to a much lesser extent the first step in a research career. This places far greater emphasis on the training aspect of the doctoral programme. The student status gives universities greater opportunity to set up joint doctoral programmes with foreign universities.


The tax and social insurance claims made on the grants of the current Dutch and foreign scholarship PhD students are another reason for better regulating the issue. The size of most Dutch and foreign scholarships generally does not allow such claims to be easily met. Universities are reluctant to provide a supplement to such a scholarship since they fear that this could lead to employment claims.


Having the Dutch Tax and Customs Administration taking money out of grants is also not in the interest of the parties providing these, such as the Dutch Ministry of Education, Science and Culture and the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Johan Huysse

Policy Adviser