PhD students are employees. At least, that is how it is officially regulated in the Netherlands. But at the UvA there are also PhD students who must make ends meet on a meager foreign scholarship. The UvA increases that scholarship by a paltry amount to meet “the minimum cost of living”, but after four years they pocket over €80,000.
Anyone who spends half an hour in the kitchenette of the Swammerdam Institute for Life Sciences (SILS) at UvA's Science Park sees researchers continuously passing by, making coffee or tea, making bread or warming noodles, and walking back to their workstations. Many seem absorbed in their thoughts. It is not an uncommon sight at the university. What is striking, however, is the large number of Asian researchers. In fact, SILS is one of the UvA institutes that works a lot with so-called foreign scholarship students.
China’s Jiali is a fictious name. The real name of the PhD Student is known to the Folia editing team. is one such PhD student. She does not receive a salary from the university, but a scholarship from the Chinese Scholarship Council (CSC). Before she began her PhD research at the UvA last October, she had never been to the Netherlands. “I am from Beijing, but studied in the UK,” she says on a sunny terrace in the Science Park. “After my studies, I went back to China, and there I went on a PhD hunt.”
That she ended up at the UvA is no coincidence. “The UK was out of the question, because as a PhD student there you have to pay high tuition.” In the UK, PhD students have to pay tuition amounting to up to €30,000 a year. “And you can’t go to a lot of places in Europe without speaking the language of the country,” she explains. “I started looking for universities with a good reputation in my research area. Coincidentally, my current UvA PhD supervisor had a kind of research proposal on his profile page to which you could respond as a Chinese PhD student. That research exactly matched my experience.”
Jiali wrote a cover letter and sent her resume, spoke with her supervisor via Zoom, and a week later received an offer to attend on the condition that she receive a CSC scholarship. The Chinese Scholarship Council is China's largest scholarship provider of overseas exchanges. Although the official criteria consist mainly of patriotism and support for the communist party, in practice the main consideration is how likely the PhD student is to finish their dissertation within four years.
“I think the CSC mainly looks at your English language skills, your research abilities, and what kind of research you do,” says Jiali. “It’s pretty competitive.” She was one of the lucky ones. She received the scholarship in the summer of 2021 and has been working at Science Park since last October.
Jiali is not the only PhD student with a Chinese scholarship at UvA. In 2013, the UvA struck a deal with the CSC giving 89 Chinese nationals a CSC scholarship to do research at the UvA through the summer of 2022. There are also PhD students who come to UvA on their own with a CSC scholarship outside the deal. According to figures provided by the UvA to the Universities of the Netherlands (UNL), there would be 185 scholarship PhDs at the UvA in 2021.
The contract originally ran for five years but has since been tacitly extended without a mid-term review. “The UvA had originally planned a working visit to China in 2019, also to visit the CSC to discuss collaboration,” a university spokesperson told me. “Due to scheduling reasons, that working visit has been moved to early 2020. Because of the corona pandemic outbreak, that visit was canceled and has not been possible to reschedule because China still has very strict corona rules.”
In 2013, the opening of UvA's academic year focused on China. Under the slogan of “The UvA meets China,” the university published a booklet detailing on dozens of pages its cooperation with Chinese researchers and companies. “The UvA is eager to demonstrate its commitment to this cooperation,” wrote then-President of the Board Louise Gunning in her foreword. Three weeks later, Gunning and Liu Jinghui, then director of the Chinese Scholarship Council, signed the contract.
For years, the number of PhD students in the Netherlands has been growing. Based on the idea that the Dutch knowledge economy benefits from a large number of PhDs, the government has encouraged this for years. Universities also benefit financially. Indeed, the distribution of the science budget in the Netherlands is largely dependent on the number of PhD students. For every PhD student who successfully defends their dissertation, the university receives a PhD bonus. From 2009 to 2017, this amount ranged between €92,000 and €98,000.
Universities attracted more and more PhD students, but the ministry’s budget for scientific research did not grow with them. As a result, the budget for free and non-earmarked research that universities received shrank. The increase in (earmarked) PhD bonuses came at the expense of the (non-earmarked) budget for research that universities had.
As early as 2014, officials were sounding the alarm that this was getting out of hand. In a report, they write: “If policy remains unchanged, this indicator will become dominant and increase volatility in allocation of first-time funding.” Universities have caught on to that as well, officials write. “The current distribution based on number of PhDs gives an incentive to grow in number of PhDs, according to some universities, while through the distribution system this leads to a decrease in the fixed base.”
In 2016, the ministry decided to set a ceiling: a maximum of 20 percent of the budget for scientific research could be spent on PhD bonuses. Since then, they have declined from €98,000 to just over €83,000 last year. The UvA, which had 568 successful PhD candidates last year, thus earned more than €47 million.
According to the Association of Universities, more than 36,000 people are currently working on doctoral research at a Dutch university. Slightly less than half are so-called employee PhD students, meaning a PhD student with a three- or four-year employment contract with the university. They are entitled to vacation days, maternity leave, and all the other rights of employees of the university. Other PhD students are not.
In recent years, the University of Groningen in particular has experimented with giving PhD students scholarships. These so-called PhD students do not have the rights that university employees have, but this would allow the university to create more PhD positions.
Minister Robbert Dijkgraaf recently put a stop to this experiment. He is not going to make the PhD student legally possible. There would be “a fragile support base” and it does not fit “with my efforts to create more peace and space in the science system and a good position for all researchers.”
Although there was much criticism of the PhD student experiment, there are several thousand foreign scholarship students walking around in the Netherlands, including at the UvA. “Foreign scholarships are one of five ways to fund PhD students,” said a UvA spokesperson. For all funding instruments “it further expands the possibility of doing research,” he adds. Scholarship PhD students, however, must make do with an extremely low monthly income in one of the most expensive cities in the world.
“€1,350 euros,” Jiali replies when asked what she gets each month from the Chinese government. “And my institute raises the scholarship to €1,500 net.” That is extremely little compared to regular employee PhD students. They earn between €2,541 and €3,247 gross per month and are also entitled to all kinds of fringe benefits such as vacation pay and a guaranteed year-end bonus.
Reinofke van de Vis chairs the PhD/PD Council of the SILS, where Jiali also works. Before she joined the council, which advises the institute's board on matters concerning PhDs, she had never heard about scholarship PhDs. “It’s so weird: at first glance we are the same. In the workplace, we're the same, doing exactly the same kind of work. But I get much more money at the end of the month than someone on a scholarship.” “€1,500 is very little,” says Van de Vis. “Especially with this inflation.” As a council member, she can do little about the PhD students’ financial situation.
Strictly speaking, neither can the Central Works Council (COR), which represents all university employees. After all, the scholarship PhD students are not employees. Erella Grassiani is an associate professor of anthropology and a member of the works council. She speaks on behalf of the council when it comes to scholarship PhD students. “In my department we have been working with such PhD students for a long time, especially from Indonesia,” she says. “So when this topic came up in the COR, it was logical for me to get involved.”
She calls the situation of scholarship PhD students “worrisome”. “I have the impression that they are being exploited in some places at the UvA. In some departments they are brought in by groups, making me wonder if that is well regulated.”
Grassiani works at the Amsterdam Institute for Social Science Research (AISSR), the research institute of the Faculty of Society & Behavior. According to Grassiani, the AISSR is the only one that has worked for years with a subsistence minimum for foreign PhD students. “We have set a social minimum at €1,600. If a grant is lower, the AISSR - or rather the research group - makes up for it. This prevents a race to the bottom. After all, you pay the rest out of your own pocket. At some places at the UvA, that doesn't happen.”
Why Jiali’s scholarship is supplemented to €1,500 and not some other amount, Jiali does not know. “I know that PhD students with a CSC grant in Groningen sometimes get top-up grants of up to €2,000. That's crazy, because Amsterdam is much more expensive than Groningen. It would be much better if it were also €2,000 here.”
This is completely arbitrary, by the way. The university recently made a deal with the tax inspector that PhD students do not have to pay income tax on a top-up grant if it is less than 40 percent of the minimum wage (€680 per month). This creates an incentive for the university not to equalize the financial allowance between scholarship PhD students and employee PhD students.
The university is aware that scholarship PhD students are "a vulnerable group," says a spokesperson. “The well-being and position of this target group therefore deserve extra attention. For that reason, there is the possibility of a top-up scholarship. Faculties thereby adhere to the minimum cost of living in Amsterdam, which in reference year 2022 is approximately €1,500. This amount is indexed annually and adjusted when relevant within the financial possibilities.”
Jiali does not know any colleagues who have real financial problems. That’s because Jiali's minimal income entitles her to allowances and financial support. “Because we earn so little, I get plenty of rent and healthcare allowances. Also, it seems to be possible to be exempted from paying waste disposal charges, but I haven't tried that yet.”
Financially, this makes it an extremely good deal for the UvA. For four years, the university pays only €150 per month to PhD2 students. Costs are added to this that must be charged for each PhD student. These include supervision, costs for ICT and a so-called bench fee allowing the PhD student to attend a conference or pay publication costs. This costs the university a total of between €10,000 and €15,000, while afterwards it receives some €85,000 in doctoral bonuses from the government.
At the same time, during those four years the government pays the PhD student a few hundred euros allowance for health care and rent per month. Plus, because of their low income, a PhD student can claim exemption from local taxes. On top of the €85,000, the scholarship student costs the government another €20,000 to €25,000 in allowances and remissions, twice as much as the UvA pays the PhD student. In addition, many scholarship PhD students are obligated to return to their home country after completing their PhD. This means that the Dutch economy does not benefit from the scholarship PhD student after the PhD is completed, either.
It raises the question of exactly what the benefit of the scholarship PhD is, says Erella Grassiani. “We as a department often do it because it’s an opportunity to conduct interesting research that you would never get funding for at the NWO,” she says. “Plus, it is a good opportunity for the PhD student. It also helps you as an institution. The UvA has set up the system so that your department’s research funding partly depends on the number of PhD bonuses you bring in.”
Reinofke van de Vis from the PhD Council of SILS also sees the dilemma of the scholarship PhD. “Do you not want scholarship PhDs at all then? That is a difficult question. It’s a huge opportunity for people,” she says. “I was once allowed to study abroad, too. Should we deny people that opportunity? I think it is especially important to manage expectations and make it clear that scholarship PhDs are in a difficult situation financially in an expensive city like Amsterdam.”
But it is questionable whether it is such a good opportunity, says anthropologist Willy Sier, who as a UvA PhD student researched the Chinese higher education system. “The education system within China is extremely competitive,” says Sier, who currently works at Utrecht University. “If you want to go to a good university, it is very difficult. There is a large group who, in terms of competition, are not able to get into a top university. Going abroad is then a kind of escape route.”
“People nowadays also look critically at students or PhD students returning from abroad,” Sier continued. “‘Certainly not good enough,’ they say then”. There is a bit of a stigma around going abroad to get your degree because you couldn’t get into a PhD program in China. So you don't necessarily get a good job right away when you return.”
Chinese SILS PhD student Jiali confirms this. “When I look at students currently doing PhDs in China, they publish much more and in more highly regarded journals than I did. The whole doctoral system in China is set up to publish a lot; here, it is much less competitive.
When Jiali returns to China, jobs are not there for the taking, she says. “The Chinese scientific world is extremely competitive. I’m already at a disadvantage because I have fewer publications.”
After getting her doctorate, she must work in China for two years. It is one of the conditions set by the CSC when applying for a scholarship. “Do I want to? Being a PhD student at a foreign university is difficult, but not the end of the world,” she says. “I have a passion for science, but I'm not sure I want to stay in academia. Ideally, after those two years, I could work abroad again, not necessarily in the Netherlands, but maybe somewhere else in Europe. I look forward to living in different countries and cities.”
This publication was created with support from the Dutch Fund for In-depth Journalism. This article was produced with assistance from Yvonne van de Meent and Laura ter Steege.