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18. Science & School

text Malini Witlox illustration Bas van der Schot

PhD without a cause Will PhD students in the future be paid a salary or will they be receiving a bur­ sary for their activities? State Secretary Halbe Zijlstra of the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science intends to introduce a bursary system.


he State Secretary aspires to adjust the law in order to allow universities to assign PhD students in the capacity of regular students to research projects. The aim is to increase the number of PhDs. At the moment, there is no lack of applications for these positions, but in most cases too little funding is available to remunerate all research proposals. Zijlstra’s proposal is not at all being welcomed by PhD students. Nearly 3000 people signed a petition on a purpose-made website in protest against the introduction of a bursary system for PhD students, says initiator Matthias van Rossum, himself a PhD at VU University Amsterdam. The Dutch Lower House has some doubts about the proposed bursary system and therefore imposed some conditions. A bursary system will only be allowed if a clear distinction is made between salary-paid PhD students who also lecture to students, and bursary-awarded PhDs who don’t. Apart from that, the introduction of a bursary system should in no way be at the expense of the number of teachers at the Dutch institutions for higher education. Last of all, the Lower House requires the government to keep it informed of any effects following the introduction of the bursary system, including the availability of university teachers.

Foreign systems All but three European countries have a bursary system in place. According to Van Rossum, the call for the introduction of a bursary system in the Netherlands has to do with the Bologna Process. Its purpose is to even up the rules and regulations among the European institutions for higher education. This will also allow for an easier international exchange of PhD students. However, PhDs are tasked with many more things besides

Univers 13 oktober 2011

research, Van Rossum argues. “In the Netherlands, many PhD students give a lot of lectures as well, apart from doing research. More often than not university professors also assign them with a subject for their thesis, without the student having a say in the matter. This indicates that a being a PhD can be regarded as much a job as any other. We believe that the desire to obtain a PhD degree will decrease when a salary won’t be offered in exchange. Dutch PhD students may be better paid compared to their British counterparts but it should be taken into account that they also publish far more. Moreover, in the Netherlands the average amount of time spent on a PhD thesis is 4.9 years, whereas the average in the U.K. is 7.5 years.”

Vague Linda Klumpers is chairwomen of PNN, the national interest group for PhD students. According to her, Zijlstra has said in a personal conversation that he “won’t allow for more than ten percent of the Dutch PhD students to be considered as bursary PhD students.” Klumpers: “That wouldn’t be as much of a problem. Each year, about 3500 to 4000 people obtain a PhD. In that case, ten percent is not a considerable number. We do fear however, that students will prefer a job at a commercial company to not receiving a salary and that less capable foreign PhD students will come to the Netherlands to obtain their degree.” Klumpers disagrees that since a majority of the European countries has introduced a bursary system, the Netherlands should follow their example. “Both the European University Association (EUA) and the European Union have published documents stating that the Dutch system works very well and should in one form or another be emulated by other countries.”

For more information on the bursary system, check out UniverOnline.

PhD without a cause  
PhD without a cause  

Univers Magazine, 13 oktober 2011. Uitgeverij: Tilburg University. Auteur: Malini Witlox