PNN warns: the evaluation of the PhD-student experiment is not independent

The PhD-student experiment, being performed mainly by the University of Groningen (RUG) involving 850 PhD-students, is currently being evaluated. Aim of the interim evaluation is to decide whether the experiment should be halted. However, University of Groningen is seemingly seizing the interim evaluation as an opportunity to expand upon the experiment with another 800 students. PNN is warning: the interim evaluation being performed by research agency CHEPS is characterized by interference and (the appearance) of bias. After repeated internal attempts of warning in vain, PNN sees no other way but to reach outward.


The PhD-student experiment led to commotion and several inquiries by the Dutch parliament. Whilst Dutch PhD-candidates are usually appointed as a university employee, they are appointed as students with a scholarship within the experiment. The self-evaluations performed by University of Groningen are outspokenly positive, in contrary to reactions from the PhD-students. The promised advantages of the experiment, including more freedom in research and education tasks, are often disappointing in practice. The disadvantages are clear: PhD-students get paid €20.000,- less than their employee counterpart, they do not accumulate any pension and the are not protected by the collective labor agreement. PNN, ISO (‘interstedelijk studenten overleg’) and the council of state have previously been very skeptical regarding the experiment.

The interim evaluation

To protect the young researchers that would participate in this experiment, an interim evaluation was planned to determine whether the experiment should be halted prematurely. Currently, this interim analysis is being performed by research agency CHEPS (University of Twente) commissioned by the Ministry of Education (OCW).

As it turns out, the interim evaluation is far from independent based on rapports passed to NRC Handelsblad by PNN. CHEPS is basing its research mainly on previously performed self-evaluations by the University of Groningen, without having access to the underlying raw data. Despite repeated insistence, the research agency neglected to perform it’s own quantitative investigation among PhD-students.

To complement the RUG data, interviews with several stakeholders were held; these consisted mainly of policy officers and administrators of the university, but also a few PhD representatives, students and the university council. PNN has received complaints that the participants were approached (and partly selected) by the RUG itself and were encouraged to be positive with regards to the experiment; ‘’We hope that a positive interim evaluation will be sufficient cause for politicians to allow the desired expansion of the current quota. […] I know that the current Minister appears to hold a negative view on the experiment started by the previous minister. This is why it is of the utmost important that the interim evaluation goes well.” What is of further notice is that the University policy officers and administrators received a list of topics in preparation for the interview. Many of the potential critical participants were not provided this opportunity.

Following complaints on this course of action, PNN was asked to help organize a round table including PhD-students. However, these participants indicated that research agency CHEPS appeared to be steering the conversation. Furthermore, the criticism by the PhD-students was not included in the evaluation, based on the draft report which PNN was able to view.

No independent research

This course of action suggests that the interim evaluation is threatening to become a repeat of the self-evaluation performed by the University of Groningen – a stakeholder with a vested interest in a positive outcome – supplemented with interviews with a dubious form of objectivity. According to PNN, it is clearly not a form of independent research as claimed by CHEPS, which is a violation of the Dutch Scientific Code of Conduct. In addition, the course of the experiment by the RUG could be called to question; an experiment calls for independence and objectivity. PNN is of the opinion that these basic conditions have been violated. There is no experiment if the outcome is already predetermined through active interference and attempts to suppress any critical views.