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Employee or not: what’s the fuss all about?

16 Mar 2010

Are PhD candidates who receive a scholarship students, or are they employees? This dispute, which has quietly plagued the Dutch research sector for years, recently flared up again following a lawsuit filed against the University of Groningen (RUG) by trade union ABVAKABO FNV and several PhD scholarship recipients. So, what’s the fuss all about? And what’s it to you?

What was the case about?

The Dutch research sector defines two broad categories of PhD candidates: those who have no employment contract and receive a scholarship (called bursary PhD candidates) and those who do have an employment contract and are paid a salary for their academic activities (called employee PhD candidates, or promovendi in Dutch). Both categories of PhD candidates conduct research and produce a doctoral thesis; what differentiates them is the form of remuneration. Employers of bursary PhD candidates are not obligated to pay social security contributions, making this category a good deal less expensive than employee PhD candidates. They receive no holiday pay or year-end bonus, and do not accrue any pension.

A further advantage, according to some universities, is that researchers who receive a scholarship, most of whom come from outside the Netherlands, are not subject to the same lengthy immigration procedure that applies to employee PhD candidates. But in fact this is a myth. In the Netherlands, all universities have signed an agreement with the Immigration and Naturalisation Service (IND) under which any foreign researcher appointed to a Dutch university, as well as his or her family, benefits from a fast-track immigration procedure organized via the so-called knowledge migrants office.

Judging this unequal status vis-à-vis their paid colleagues to be unfair, 13 bursary PhD candidates at the RUG joined with the trade union ABVAKABO FNV to file a lawsuit against that university. In August 2009 the judge ruled that bursary recipients are in fact to be considered employees, and not students, since their activities qualify as ‘work’, their earnings as ‘salary’, and because their relationship with their supervisors is a hierarchical one. This verdict aligns with existing case law. Similar lawsuits have previously been filed against three other universities, with one making it all the way to the Dutch supreme court (in 2006).

What happens now, and what’s it to you?

For foreign researchers with their own funding (such as a government or university scholarship from their own country), nothing will change; the agreements which apply in their case play no part in the current debate.

Indeed, the judge’s ruling concerns only the 13 researchers at the RUG, although other scholarship recipients can also invoke the verdict before their university boards. Most Dutch universities have elected not to admit anymore bursary PhD candidates until the case has been definitively settled (the verdict is subject to appeal and can be brought before the Dutch supreme court – a process that all in all could take years), but a few are still letting foreign scholarship recipients in. As legal proceedings continue, so too does debate outside the courtroom.

Former Dutch Education Minister Plasterk was in favour of defining PhD candidates as employees, whilst members of another political party, the Democrats 66, who previously came out in support of the minister’s standpoint, now indicate they see the value of the bursary system.

The subject was about to come up for discussion in the Dutch Lower House, but with the collapse of the government it is now unclear when this dialogue will continue.

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