Saturday 03 December 2022

Unpaid PhD students are a source of money for Dutch universities: NRC


Some 18,000 PhD students currently attached to the 14 Dutch universities are working on their theses without being on the payroll, the NRC reported on Monday.

Of them, 4,200 are living from a grant, often from abroad, 5,900 are paying their own way and 6,000 are working for an external employer, figures from the Dutch universities association show.

The paper quoted research by the academic institute NWO which has calculated a ‘free’ PhD candidate saves a university €260,000 in personal costs over four years but does generate an €83,000 bonus for every successful student.

A PhD student who is employed by the university earns between €2,540 and €3,250 per year plus holiday pay and an annual bonus.

The NRC spoke to 40 PhD students, professors, policy advisors and university officials for its research. Several foreign PhD candidates spoke of feeling they were second class citizens because they were not employed by their university, of feeling excluded and of the struggle to make ends meet on small grants from their home countries.

‘PhD candidates with a grant often do exactly the same work as others but earn less and have fewer rights,’ urban geography professor Rivke Jaffe told the paper. ‘And the division often operates along racial lines. PdD candidates from Europe or the US are usually always employed, but those from China, Indonesia or Chile come here with a grant of €1,350 a month.’

Who the ‘free’ PhD candidates are is unclear because universities do not register where they come from, the size of their grant or what income they have to live on, the NRC said. Nor is there information available about the subject matter and the length of time they take to carry out their research.

Attractive location

The Netherlands, the paper says, is an attractive location for international PhD students with their own funding because universities are accessible and completing a dissertation is almost always free.

‘In the Netherlands, you will always find a professor who will act as your supervisor,’ said Pieter Slaman, an educational historian at Leiden University.

‘In 1815 we opted to democratise the process and offer researchers from outside the university the option to do a PhD. In Anglo-American countries you first follow an educational programme that lasts a couple of years. You cannot stream in as an external candidate and do your own research.’

Education minister Robbert Dijkgraaf told the paper that he is aware a number of PhD candidates are performing unpaid work and that the policy will be looked at as part of a wider strategy focusing on talent management.

Are you a PhD candidate at a Dutch university and would you like to share your experiences? Contact

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