Debate on bursary system at LUMC PhD day

On Friday 25th October the VAO (Vereniging Arts Onderzoekers) organized a PhD day at the LUMC, which was concluded with a debate on the introduction of a bursary system to the PhD system in the Netherlands. The result: a landslide NO to the bursary system from the PhD candidates present. Gareth O’Neill, representing PhDoc in the debate, reports.

Around 240 PhDs from the LUMC (Leiden University Medical Center) had attended various lectures and workshops on PhD-related skills and topics throughout the day, before the open debate kicked off. Its topic: the benefits and disadvantages of the bursary system. Contrasting with the current Dutch PhD system, which views PhDs as employees of the university who receive a legal salary and associated benefits (such as holiday pay, sick leave, pension contribution, unemployement benefit, training courses, and conference visits), the bursary system essentially involves PhDs being viewed as students of the university who do not receive a salary and (some) associated benefits, but only a grant (which may be subject to government tax), and who may be subject to university tuition fees (which may be waived).

By Gareth O’Neill
Gareth O’Neill is doing a PhD in linguistics. Since September 2013 he has a seat in the Faculty Council of the Humanities Faculty.

The bursary system was first briefly explained by the debate chairman Michel Ferrari (professor of neurology at the LUMC) and then the two main propositions were put forward:

1) the introduction of the bursary system will lead to less regular PhDs and thus to a loss of talent;

2) the quality of the research will worsen (partially as a result of the absence of employment rights, courses, conference visits, and cooperation).

The PhDs present were then asked to electronically vote on the introduction of the bursary system before the debate started: 8% were in favour; 75% were against; 17% did not know. After a brief introduction the panel of discussants set forth the debate: Curtis Barrett (director of English Editing Solutions) in favour of the bursary system; Victor de Graaff (representative of Promovendi Netwerk Nederland) against the bursary system; Lou de Leij (dean at the University of Groningen) in favour of the bursary system; Frits Koning (professor of immunology at the LUMC) against the bursary system; Gareth O’Neill (PhD at the Leiden University Centre for Linguistics and representative of PhDoc) against the bursary system.

Right from the start it was clear that de Leij and Barrett were going to have a difficult time with the audience of PhDs. De Leij argued for the bursary system as a flexible and more cost-effective addition to the current PhD system, that there was no difference between the two types of PhD in terms of income and benefits, and that the quality of PhD research and of the PhD dissertation was the same. Barrett argued for a total replacement of the current PhD system with the bursary system as this system worked well in the United States and he personally considered it a better system.

The arguments against the bursary system however seemed to dominate. I argued in turn that there were in fact differences in both income and benefits, that the current PhD system had been a phenomenal success in the Netherlands and had boosted the level of academic education and research as well as the international recognition of Dutch universities, and that the bursary system would ultimately lead to a loss of academic talent and a decline in the level and recognition of Dutch universities.

De Graaff similarly argued that there were clear differences in terms of income and benefits as well as in the treatment of the two types of PhDs, that the bursary system would be detrimental to education and research in the Netherlands, and that the Netherlands did not need to introduce the bursary system simply because the United States had such a system. Koning finally argued that the current PhD system had worked extremely well and that the bursary system offered no advantages or improvements on the current PhD system.

The audience reacted strongly against De Leij and Barrett and could not understand what benefits the bursary system offered over the current PhD system and why PhDs in the Netherlands would want to adopt such a system. As each discussant briefly summed up their final standpoint Barrett’s words of advice rang through the room: “Keep an Open Mind”. After the final electronic vote it was clear however that the audience did not want to keep an open mind, but were even more firmly decided upon the issue than before the debate started: 7% were in favour; 88% were against; and only 5% did not know.

Watching and listening to the audience file out of the room towards the celebratory end-of-day drinks there was no doubt that if it were up to the PhDs of the LUMC, the bursary system would have no place in the Dutch PhD system.


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