Dutch PhD candidates often do not work under acceptable terms of employment. For PhD candidates from abroad, the situation is often even worse. PNN does proposals for better protection of so-called sandwich-PhD candidates.
Sandwich-PhD candidates, sometimes called joint PhDs, mainly work in their home countries and spend part of their PhD trajectory in the Netherlands. They often follow a training program here for the first nine months, next to elaborating their research proposal. In the following two and a half years, they conduct research in their home country, with the help of a local supervisor. In the meantime, they have regular contact with the Dutch supervisor to monitor progress. At the end of this period, they return to the Dutch university for nine more months to complete their thesis.
Sandwich-PhDs have been around in the Netherlands since the nineties. Wageningen University is regarded as a pioneer and prolific user of this construction. Many sandwich-PhDs come from countries in Central and South America, Africa and Southeast Asia and have an association with a local institute or university.
The sandwich construction offers PhD candidates from less developed countries access to the supposedly high level of universities in the Netherlands and other Western European countries, while maintaining ties with their homeland. It is therefore sometimes regarded as development aid.
A second reason for the sandwich construction is less often expressed verbally: cost savings. Because of the shared ownership with the institution in the home country, the Dutch university does not bear most of the costs. The university only provides a grant of approximately EUR 60,000, to which only students from outside the Netherlands are entitled.
The grant covers the wage costs for the appointment of two times nine months in the Netherlands plus the costs for visas, travel, relocation, study materials, guidance in the home country and use of university facilities. In turn, the university may receive the amount from the Ministry of Education per successful PhD as for employee-PhD candidates. The current amount that a university receives per PhD is around EUR 80,000 .
Contributing to local knowledge building and cost savings: it sounds too good to be true. So it is: at the bottom of the line the sandwich candidate often ends up between the shore and the ship.
Sandwich-PhDs more than often encounter problems in their home countries, which are out of sight in the Netherlands. For example, the scholarship provided by the home university may be insufficient to provide a living. Sandwich-PhDs can also be confronted with many extra tasks in their home country. They then have to do their research in their spare time, which results in delays. One sandwich-PhD said that upon returning to her home country, her salary was halved, she had to continue with her normal tasks and it was assumed that she could carry out her research in her own time. Moreover, her contract stated that she had to continue working for the same institute for another ten years after her PhD, otherwise she risked a fine.
But also in the Netherlands sandwich-PhDs experience problems. Their scholarship is often far below the salary of employee-PhDs and their legal status is often unclear: are they employee, guest researcher or student? Because of this, many things are difficult for them to arrange. Without a contract, for example, it can be hard to find housing, especially for shorter periods of time. Leave and childcare benefits must be arranged on an individual basis, because sandwich-PhDs are no employees and there are no unambiguous leave settlements. This group is therefore at the mercy of the university’s goodwill.
Teaching is also a complex issue, where circumstances can vary greatly from case to case: Some sandwich-PhDs do not get the chance to teach, others have to teach an excessive number of hours. This often happens unpaid because they do not have a contract with the university. They cannot refuse, as their supervisors see teaching as a take it or leave it deal.
The time pressure for sandwich-PhDs increases enormously due to the extra tasks and they have little time left to stand up for their rights. They also fall between two stools when it comes to representing their interests: trade unions can do little for this group as long as they are not formally employed.
Sandwich-PhDs are appointed with good intentions, but this construction should not be at their expense. If we finance and facilitate programs that lead to exploitation, then we are part of the problem. Do Dutch universities want to be involved in this?
Code of conduct
PNN does not advocate the abolition of the sandwich-PhD, but rather an ethical continuation. Supervisors at Dutch universities must be fully aware of the conditions under which their PhD students are affiliated with the home institute. This requires open communication with the PhD candidate and the supervisors at the home institute.
It would be a big step forward if graduate schools would monitor the working conditions of the home institute and reflect this in the hiring policy. A code of conduct for the hiring policy of PhD candidates offers supervisors a framework when discussing the employment conditions with the home institute.
Finally, Dutch universities must take responsibility for the PhD student throughout the entire PhD trajectory and not only during their stay in the Netherlands. Working conditions in the home country are an integral part of the process. Where necessary, universities should take steps to support and protect PhD students.
This article first appeared in Onderwijsblad no 5 (2020). PNN would like to thank the Wageningen PhD Council for providing input and feedback on previous versions.