Wednesday 20 October 2021

Ombudsman should turn tide of abusive behaviour by PhD supervisors


Eight of the 14 Dutch universities do not yet have an independent ombudsman for students who are experiencing intimidation, racism, sexual harassment or research-related problems at the hands of their supervisor.

The presence of an ombudsman has been a legal requirement since July 1 following persistent complaints from students to the national PhD student network and a spate of scandals involving unacceptable behaviour by university professors. The exact scale of the problem at universities has not been established.

‘We are dealing with a couple of cases a month of PhD students who have hit a brick wall in their research studies. These are harrowing stories of people who are being bullied out of their place or who are deliberately thwarted in their career. We even had a case of someone who committed suicide, partly as a result of a troubled relationship with her supervisor, the network’s spokeswoman Rosanne Anholt told broadcaster NOS.

A survey by the broadcaster among 400 PhD students has shown that this group is particularly vulnerable because they are usually involved in doing research for their supervisor, often a professor whose prestige has paved the way for a grant for a particular project. This cranks up the pressure to perform and also makes the student completely dependent on the supervisor.

Four in ten of the respondents said they had clashed with their supervisor, or had experienced bullying, racism, and sexual harassment. Many said they had been left with mental problems.


A recent report by the national network of female professors said the hierarchical structure at universities, the competitive culture, insufficient recourse for students and the students’ reluctance to criticise their supervisors all contributed to the problem.

That report and the various incidents has led to a call by politicians for the Dutch academy of science KNAW to come up with ways to prevent and handle abusive behaviour at universities. MPs have also questioned the independent status of the ombudsmen seeing they are being employed by the universities.

‘An unsafe working climate is not good for science. Mistakes are not mentioned, or authorship faked, purely because these people are under so much pressure to perform,’ Anholt said. ‘It makes the threshold for a career in science that much higher and many PhD students are thinking of quitting.’

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