Most universities are not helping international scholarship PhDs’ tight finances

Five universities top up the meagre income of international scholarship PhDs. The others do little to nothing, a study shows. Of TU Delft, the latter was already known.

Illustration accompanying Delta's June 2023 investigative story on the poor financial position of scholarship PhDs in Delft. (Illustration: Liam van Dijk)

The estimated 3,800 international scholarship PhDs in the Netherlands often have incomes below the minimum wage, two separate surveys by Delta and Promovendi Network Nederland (PNN) recently showed. They have to make ends meet on an average of 1,400 euros per month, while some have to manage on as little as 700 euros per month.

They are considerably less well-off than employed PhD candidates, who receive a gross salary of between 2,800 and 3,500 euros per month. As scholarship PhDs are neither student nor employee, they generally do not qualify for student accommodation and also cannot claim allowances.

Ideally, PNN would like institutes to hire the international scholarship PhD candidates as employees, with the scholarships from their home countries being used to subsidise part of their salaries. Failing this, they should at least top up their scholarship amounts.

Topping up

According to a study by PNN and HOP, five of the fifteen Dutch universities provide their international scholarship PhD candidates with some financial assistance.

‘We don’t know if it’s allowed or not’

Leiden and Wageningen provide a top-up to 1,508 euros, the income standard set by the Immigration and Naturalisation Service IND as a condition for granting a residence permit to researchers. Wageningen made this decision in early September, despite the Executive Board’s lack of explicit authorisation from the Tax and Customs Administration to do so.

“We don’t know if it’s allowed or not”, Rector Magnificus Arthur Mol told University magazine Resource. The provision is costing the University over two million euros, bringing with it the risk that the Tax and Customs Administration may still impose an additional tax assessment. The situation is different for future PhD candidates: from January 2024, they will only be welcome in Wageningen if their scholarship meets the IND standard and also rises in line with inflation.

The University of Amsterdam and Radboud University Nijmegen go a step further: they top up the scholarship to 1,614 and 1,700 euros, respectively.

The University of Groningen (RUG) is the most generous, however. International scholarship PhD candidates at RUG receive the same amount – a net sum of 2,265 euros – as Dutch PhD students covered by the university’s ‘PhD Scholarship Experiment’. The University of Groningen says that by paying taxes and contributions on the gross amount, they can also access social welfare provisions such as allowances. The experiment with Dutch scholarship PhD candidates is controversial, however, and is set to end in 2024.

Little to nothing

The ten other universities do not offer a general top-up. This is no surprise in the case of the Open University and the University of Humanistic Studies, since they claim not to have any international scholarship PhD candidates. At Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, some departments and faculties are temporarily sharing the burden in individual cases. And Maastricht University has let it be known that it has a policy of organising accommodation for its first-year PhD students from China.

The remaining six universities, however, have nothing in the way of a top-up provision for now. The University of Twente notes that the possibilities for topping up are limited and that there are different approaches among regional tax inspectors with regard to them. “We and the other universities have advocated on multiple occasions for the introduction of a national top-up policy. So far, nothing along those lines has been put in place.”

(Illustration: Liam van Dijk)


Delta conducted extensive research earlier this year into the difficult financial position of scholarship PhDs at TU Delft. The latter appeared to do very little about it, because there were said to be ‘labour and financial consequences’, according to a spokesperson. According to him, however, UNL is working on ‘more clarity’.


PNN is pushing for action in the short term. It supports the introduction of a national policy to eliminate any further legal inequality. The House of Representatives agrees with this view. Last year, it passed a motion brought by the CDA (in Dutch) calling on the government to make national agreements between the relevant ministries, the Tax and Customs Administration, benefits agency UWV and Sociale Verzekeringsbank (SVB). This motion has yet to be implemented.

PNN board member Benthe van Wanrooij believes that is no excuse for universities to fold their arms and do nothing, however. “Together with our members, the local PhD candidate organisations, we encourage institutions to reach agreements with their individual tax inspectors in the meantime.”

HOP, Hein Cuppen

Translation: Taalcentrum-VU

HOP Hoger Onderwijs Persbureau

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