On 1 September 2016, the UG launched the PhD Scholarship Programme as part of the national PhD Scholarship Programme Experiment of the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science (OCW). The UG invited selected students to write their own PhD proposals in collaboration with a supervisor of their choice. In this way, the PhD students had the chance to develop their own research projects. In response to the national evaluation of the experiment, Rector Magnificus Cisca Wijmenga discusses the results of the programme in Groningen.
Recent publications by the OECD and the Rathenau Instituut show that, in comparison to other knowledge-intensive economies, there are relatively few specialists with a PhD in the Netherlands. 'We want to work together to find a solution to this societal problem. The first goal of our PhD Scholarship Programme was to provide more students with the opportunity of doing a PhD and, eventually, to strengthen our society by training more highly educated knowledge workers. We realized beforehand that we were entering into an exciting process that would include certain difficulties. We went out on a limb, and it was successful, since the experiment helped us immensely.'
'Giving young, talented academics a chance to chase their dreams is our ambition. This is not sufficiently possible in the system whereby PhD students have employee status because there has been too little state funding for PhD positions in recent years. Thanks to our PhD Scholarship Programme, financed directly by the university, the amount of PhD positions in Groningen has increased significantly. We now see a more than 20% increase in the number of PhD degrees awarded compared to the situation before the experiment. I am proud that we were successful in this. Over the past few years, there was no increase in PhD degrees awarded on a national level, but the UG was an exception.'
The space for PhD students to conduct their own research, financed directly by the university, is one of the fundamental cornerstones of the PhD Scholarship Programme. The intention is that the PhD students conduct research that aligns with the Strategic Plan of the University, whereby the PhD students are completely free to determine their own discipline within a certain theme. 'Thanks to the high number of available positions in the Programme, there are more opportunities for Research Master’s students, for example, who are writing their own PhD proposal. That way we can give a real boost to University research driven by curiosity.'
PhD scholarship students have student status. They are allocated a notional employment contract to receive payment of their scholarship. This means that the UG pays the PhD students' income tax and social security contributions, so that the students are entitled to social benefits and allowances. PhD scholarship students do not pay pension premiums and do not get an end-of-year bonus nor a holiday allowance. This has led to resistance against the PhD Scholarship Programme.
'At the beginning, the consultative participation bodies were critical. The extension of the Programme caused heated discussions among us. Solutions to many issues were found by the University itself, often in close consultation with the local Tax and Customs Administration. In theory, everything was usually well organized, but it would have been even better if national agreements regarding fiscal integration were reached beforehand.'
'We have done our best for the experiment to succeed, and for the PhD students to be optimally supported. For example, a desk with specialists who know exactly what kind of support this group of PhD students needs was established at the University. Often, complex questions were discussed. We were continuously searching for solutions, even when it was not really our task to do so.'
From the very start, the UG aimed at a healthy legal and social system for all PhD students with a scholarship, also for international PhD students with a competitive scholarship from their country of origin. With the PhD Scholarship Programme, the University provides full and supplementary scholarships (top-up grants), including income tax and social insurance contributions. The top-up grants are added to the international scholarship to reach the level of a net scholarship amount of a PhD student with a full scholarship. That way, we can guarantee good living conditions with social security. 'There were a lot of differences between the PhD students in the past. PhD students with a scholarship from their home country were in a specifically disadvantaged position. We remedied the situation and there are no more extreme cases. It is great to see the UG become an example to the whole nation.'
Research conducted at the Rathenau Instituut shows that in the Netherlands, only 13% of PhD students feel properly prepared for future careers. This touches upon the third objective of the PhD Scholarship Programme: providing a training pathway that prepares students for starting their career once they have finished their PhD. 'We developed a new and extensive package of courses and workshops: the "Career Perspectives Series". The My Future Career course unit, for which we appointed a dedicated lecturer, is a prominent example. The training pathway prepares PhD students for a career either within or outside academia depending on what they choose and supports them in their chosen trajectory. We are also working on developing a career portal for establishing early contact between PhD students and companies regarding internships and mentors.'
'I am incredibly proud of this career preparation programme. It is a direct result of the national experiment. It turned out that there was a great need for it among PhD students with employee status, too. Our numbers show that virtually all of our PhD scholarship students find jobs immediately after finishing their PhDs. That is a fantastic result.'
'Our experiences until now have shown that PhD scholarship students are an asset to the PhD system,' Wijmenga concludes. 'That is why it is unfortunate that the experiment will stop soon. But it is not the main focus for me. Most importantly, we can allow more people to obtain their PhD.
The UG wants to provide optimal opportunities to as many young and talented academics as possible. PhD students play a crucial and indispensable role in scientific research. The PhD experiment turned out to successfully complement the regular system of employee-status PhD students at the UG. In the meantime, thanks to a substantial donation, we have been able to set up a new programme (M20) for extra PhD positions and, in doing so, to continue contributing to a healthy academic climate in the Netherlands.'
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