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Why we support the bursary experiment

Datum:01 maart 2016
Auteur:Casper Albers

Last week, our faction (along with all other factions) supported to CvB’s proposal to join the bursary experiment. In the weeks prior to our decision, we have been in contact with various stakeholders, including PhD-councils from many different faculties. These councils urged us to either vote against the proposal, or to delay the decision. Yet, we voted in favour. In this blog post, we will explain why.

First: a delay would have had our preference, but this was not possible. In order to participate in the experiment, the ministry has to be notified before March 15th.  We had to make our decision last Thursday.

We as a faction are not against the concept of bursaries per se: if all that should be arranged well is arranged well, we could see ourselves supporting a proposal along such lines and especially a proposal to start an experiment along these lines. Furthermore, the proposal did contain many good aspects that would improve the quality of training and support for both future bursaries as employee-PhD-students. (The future PhD-students that will be funded by money from e.g. NWO or industry will still receive a contract as employee.)

Regarding the process that led to the proposal, we were quite unsatisfied. The university had the ambition for years to experiment with bursaries, the university knew a long time that the ministry would open up the possibility for an experiment, yet the board waited for the very last possibility to discuss the final plans with the university council – even though the ministry clearly demands clear support from the University and Faculty Councils. Also, communication with PhD-councils could have been better. However, we did not base our vote on frustration about the process, but purely on the potential benefits of the final plan for the academic community in Groningen.

Our concerns were similar to those of the PhD-councils we’ve communicated with:

  1. Capacity. With a vast increase in the number of PhD-students, we were concerned whether there is enough academic staff to supervise these additional students. This problem mainly pertains to the two faculties – FMNS and UMCG – that take on the vast majority of PhD-students.
  2. Lack of teaching experience for bursaries. The opportunity to teach is essential for a career in academia. According to the initial proposal, bursaries lack this opportunity and are at an disadvantage when competing with PhD-students for an academic position.
  3. Overflow of teaching to the academic staff. As a direct consequence of the previous point:  when there are fewer PhD-students that can perform teaching duties, other people have to take over these duties. As the academic staff already is at(/over) its limits for teaching tasks, this could be problematic.
  4. Financial unclarity. It is still unclear how the tax office will treat bursaries and what the financial consequences are. Furthermore, all secondary working conditions – parental leave, sick leave, care leave, financing of conference visits and research lab costs, subsidy for child care, etc. – are all unclear.
  5. National status. If all goes according to plan, the RUG will soon ask for about 850 bursaries where it is expected that all other Dutch universities combined will ask for less than 100 bursaries at this point. Those other universities will not stop hiring employee-PhD-students. In a few years, we will have the situation that the very qualified students have the luxurity to choose between a ‘proper’ PhD position, including solid working conditions, teaching opportunities, etc., and a stripped-down bursary position. Even though this is not the Board’s intention, it might at to a distorted image of our University.
  6. It is not an experiment. In the plans, there are no formal targets nor evaluation points. By definition, experiments can have the hoped for positive outcome, but can also have a negative outcome. In the latter case, procedures must be in place to stop with the experiment.

It is clear from the above that the Personnel Faction was not overjoyed with the proposal. We regarded the lack of teaching opportunities as a very serious problem and also had problems with all the financial uncertainties. During the meeting, we postulated a list of eleven demands (many of which were also shared by the two largest other parties, SOG and Lijst Calimero). In their reaction to our demands, the Board made important promises. Using the same numbering as above, these are:

  1. Capacity. The Board assured that bursaries will only be assigned to professors that (i) have a proven track record of being a good supervisor; (ii) indicate they have time available to supervise additional students. Furthermore, the total number of PhD-students will not grow dramatically (about 20%).
  2. Lack of teaching experience. During the meeting, the Board offered a satisfactory solution. As part of their training, all PhD-students (both bursaries as employees), get the opportunity to do a ‘BKO-light’ teaching training. In faculties where it is common that PhD-students perform teaching duties, bursaries will get this opportunity as well – if the bursary desires so. Besides their bursary-studentship, they can get a part-time employment (e.g. 0.1 or 0.2FTE) as teacher, with a salary comparable to employee-PhD-students. The bursary can decide between making more hours per week (full-time bursary plus part-time teacher), or work on the bursary part-time (0.8 or 0.9FTE), making the scholarship last longer. The board has promised that this opportunity is also open for bursaries outside the EU.
  3. Overflow of teaching to current staff. As bursaries do get the opportunity to teach, the expected overflow problems are resolved.
  4. Financial unclarity. The Board made very sound promises. Even though negotiations with the Tax Office are still in place, the board guarantees that: (i) Bursaries will receive at least 1700 euro/month net; (ii) Bursaries will receive a fund for training, conference visits, research lab costs, etc., that is comparable to the budget of employee-PhD-students; (iii) Bursaries will receive similar treatment as employee-PhD-students with regard to parental leave, pregnancy leave, sick leave, compassionate leave, etc. In case the treatment is a financial compensation, it will be similar in the amount after taxes, so bursaries won’t be disadvantaged because of a different treatment by the tax office.
  5. National status. Next month, the Board will present a policy document outlining the steps it will take should the status of Groningen within the Netherlands be affected by this experiment.
  6. It is not an experiment. There will be yearly evaluations of the experiment. The results of the experiment will be communicated with the University Council. Negative outcomes of evaluations might result in the termination of the experiment. (Should the experiment terminate, then all bursaries that have already started, will still receive supervision.)

Based on all these guarantees from the Board, the Personnel Faction decided that the benefits of the proposal – having more opportunities for qualified young people to do PhD-research and having a much better training programme for them – outweighed the disadvantages, which is why we, and all other factions, supported this initiative.






Tags: bursaries


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