‘Chinese researchers work fulltime, but earn a pittance’

1919 Chinese researchers are conducting doctoral research in the Netherlands on a scholarship that pays below minimum wage. Universities barely contribute financial support.

Photo only for illustration. (Photo: Justyna Botor)

This was reported by the investigative journalism platform Follow the Money (FTM). Currently in the Netherlands, 1919 Chinese scientists are conducting doctoral research while being supported by a scholarship from the China Scholarship Council (CSC). This scholarship provided by China pays EUR 1350 per month, which is considerably less than the Dutch minimum wage (EUR 1756). The CSC-doctoral candidates are not protected by a collective labour agreement (cao) and miss out on a range of social security provisions. For example, they are not accruing any pension, they are not entitled to maternity leave nor are they eligible for a child care allowance.

Doctoral candidates with a CSC-scholarship fall in the category of ‘scholarship-doctoral candidates’. Around 48% of the doctoral candidates in the Netherlands are employed and thus fall in another category: that of ‘employee-doctoral candidates’. They are protected by the cao, accrue pension and are entitled to maternity leave, child care allowance and other social security provisions. They also receive a salary instead of a scholarship. And the amount they receive is considerably more: in 2022 they earned between EUR 2,541 and 3,247 gross per month.

Interest group Promovendi Netwerk Nederland (PNN) labels the situation undesirable. “Scholarship-doctoral candidates (the category in which researchers with a CSC-scholarship fall, Ed.) and employee-doctoral candidates do exactly the same work. Universities should therefore compensate them equally and employ the scholarship-doctoral candidates,” stated a board member.

According to the investigative journalism platform FTM, both universities and the Dutch government have focussed strongly on attracting CSC-researchers in the past few years. Until 2018, TU Delft had a contract with CSC to recruit doctoral candidates. Press officer Karen Collet explained that it was subsequently decided not to renew this contract, partly because CSC was not prepared to increase the scholarship payments. She stated that TU Delft is currently not actively recruiting CSC-doctoral candidates. Around half of all TU Delft scholarship-doctoral candidates come from China: 278 of the 486 scholarship-doctoral candidates receive a CSC-scholarship.

Barely making ends meet

Five Chinese doctoral candidates conducting research at Dutch universities told Follow the Money that they barely make ends meet, or only with great difficulty. Although universities receive a bonus from the Dutch government for every post-doctoral researcher of EUR 83,000, they do not always supplement the scholarships. It is difficult because of the tax situation or even impossible according to spokespersons from several universities.

A number of universities state that it is too expensive to offer structural financial support. For example, Maastricht University said, ‘The arrangement is difficult from the tax situation and must apply to all doctoral candidates arriving with a scholarship. We find the situation undesirable and too expensive.’ Maastricht University does pay for the accommodation of doctoral candidates in the first year up to a maximum of EUR 400 per month. The remainder must be paid by the scholarship-doctoral candidate themselves.

TU Delft chose in the past – when the sum was even lower – to supplement the scholarship, but has now reversed that decision, reported Collet. “In the past we supplemented the CSC-scholarship up to the social minimum (of the Immigration & Naturalisation Service, IND, Ed.). Then we became aware that China does not need financial support from us and can afford to pay out a full scholarship. This requirement was expressed and led to an increase in the CSC-scholarship, so no supplement was required from us any longer.”

According to Collet the university uses the social minimum set by the IND rather than the minimum wage when deciding whether a scholarship is high enough. In 2022 this amounted to EUR 1,266.29 per month, which is a bit less than the Dutch minimum wage. In October the Observant, the news medium of the University of Maastricht, reported that China will probably raise the scholarships of Chinese doctoral candidates studying abroad to EUR 1500 or 1650. This change is expected to take effect from 2023.

Too expensive

Two universities do supplement the scholarship. The University of Groningen increases the monthly payment to EUR 2010. The University of Amsterdam (UvA) increases the monthly payment to EUR 1500 but does not pay out the maximum sum of EUR 680 that the university is allowed to pay out according to a deal made with the tax inspector, reported Folia earlier in October. The university medium has conducted extensive research in the past few months into the situation of scholarship-doctoral candidates at the UvA.  

The situation of scholarship-doctoral candidates has been brought up before, for example by GroenLinks MP Lisa Westerveld, who asked Parliamentary questions about this. She was unsuccessful in her attempt: the then minister Ingrid van Engelshoven (D66) considered it unnecessary to change the current system. Last September, Harry van der Molen and Inge van Dijk (CDA), members of the House of Representatives, submitted a motion to arrive at national agreements about the scholarship-doctoral candidates. It was adopted unanimously.

Unusual conditions

At Erasmus University there was quite a stir in the past few months about CSC-doctoral candidates. The university’s scientists expressed their concerns in an anonymous letter about the conditions imposed by the China Scholarship Council, and Erasmus Magazine wrote about this situation. For example, the conditions of the scholarship state that doctoral candidates ‘must love the motherland’, must have a ‘good political character’ and ‘must support the Communist Party of China’. According to a report of the American government, it is ‘difficult to impossible’ to ascertain whether the conditions are being strictly complied with. In a later article of Erasmus Magazine, Chinese doctoral candidates explained that these conditions don’t mean anything. “These types of sentences are found in every standard contract in China. They are never enforced. My political opinions have never been examined,” confirmed a doctoral candidate.

It is indeed reasonable to assume that not all of the conditions are strictly fulfilled. For example, according to the conditions, researchers must work for at least two years in China after obtaining their doctorate. But both Dutch and American research has found that the majority of doctoral candidates do not plan to return to China after graduating. Dutch researchers from the Leiden Asia Centre wrote in 2017 that this figure was 79%. According to American researchers, between 85% and 90% of them want to remain in the United States.

  • You can find the report of the American government about CSC-doctoral candidates here. The one from the Leiden Asia Centre can be accessed via this link.

Delta editor Annebelle de Bruijn also contributed to the research into Chinese doctoral candidates scholarships for Follow the Money. The other author of that article is Dorine Booij.

News editor Annebelle de Bruijn

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