PhD candidates with scholarships fall between the cracks: ‘They are beyond vulnerable’

Inflation is pushing PhD candidates with grants to the brink. As their position at TU Delft is so tenuous, they could be subject to misuse. TU Delft does little, found Delta.

Scholarship PhD students at TU Delft don't qualify as employees, but neither are they students. (Illustration: Liam van Dijk)

What will you read?

  • Delta investigated the situation of PhD candidates with scholarships. Read the findings in this article. 
  • Hundreds of TU Delft PhD candidates receive grants that are far lower than the minimum wage instead of salaries. Inflation is making it hard to make ends meet, especially with such a low income. 
  • These PhD candidates with scholarships or ‘bursalen’ (in Dutch)  in the Dutch university system are neither employees nor students. They often miss out on provisions and rulings which employed PhD candidates are entitled to. Furthermore, they may not have recourse to any official representation body. “Their position is beyond vulnerable,” says a supervisor who works with several PhD candidates with scholarships. 
  • The lack of clarity around their position leads to confusion and misuse. Delta spoke to one PhD candidate with a scholarship who is compelled by his/her supervisor to teach while this should not be done at TU Delft’s request. 
  • In contrast to other Dutch universities, TU Delft is not prepared to help PhD candidates with scholarships financially. Furthermore, over the last year several TU Delft departments have turned down requests for help from PhD candidates with scholarships. 
  • This article uses ‘plusses’. Click on an asterisk (*) at the end of a sentence for more information about the subject in question. 

PhD candidate with a scholarship Swarnim from India knows exactly how much the price of eggs has risen. A year ago three dozen eggs cost EUR 3.50. This is now EUR 7.50. He also knows the price of rice, bread, oil and lots of other groceries, including the significant price rises. Swarnim only buys in bulk to make it last for weeks or months. This is cheaper. He has to do this as his monthly income as a PhD candidate with a scholarship is not enough to make ends meet.  

Discussions that Delta held with PhD candidates with scholarships like Swarnim and their representative bodies show that they are hit hard by inflation. On top of this, they do not qualify as employees of TU Delft which means that they have nowhere to turn if they need help. They are usually at the mercy and goodwill of the research department that they fall under for help. According to Saket Pande, Assistant Professor and supervisor at the Faculty of Civil Engineering and Geosciences – who has several PhD candidates with scholarships under his wing – they are the most vulnerable group at TU Delft. 

Hundreds of euros less than the minimum wage
Living on a grant was already challenging, as PhD candidates with scholarships usually receive a lot less than the minimum wage (EUR 1,995 gross). Now that the prices have gone up, many are barely keeping their heads above water. “I check my bank account three or four times a week to calculate my expenses. I always feel stressed. I never have enough money,” says doctoral candidate Marcus whose grant is also hundreds of euros below the minimum wage. 

The level of the grant varies according to the country of origin, with high and low exceptions. By way of example, a Vietnamese doctoral candidate will receive an annual amount of about EUR 900 nett per month and an Indonesian doctoral candidate with a family will receive between EUR 1,300 and EUR 2,100 nett per month.* This amount is inclusive of family allowances. Most of the PhD candidates that Delta spoke to receive about EUR 1,200 nett a month. In comparison: the salary of an employed doctoral candidate in 2023 is between  EUR 2,541 and EUR 3,247 gross per month (approximately EUR 2,222 to EUR 2,636 nett per month).  

(Illustration: Liam van Dijk)
Four types of PhD candidates

PhD candidates at Dutch universities are financed in different ways. The Universities of The Netherlands umbrella organisation distinguishes between four categories. Of the 3,253 TU Delft PhD candidates, 446 are PhD candidates with a scholarship: they receive a grant – often from a national or regional government body in their own country – and use it to do doctoral dissertation research at TU Delft. Most grants also pay the tuition fee (a one-time tuition fee of EUR 11,000 for the whole doctoral programme, Eds.) and a bench fee for PhD candidates with scholarships.* The ‘grant students’ are not employed by TU Delft so are not covered by a CAO (collective labour agreement). They do sign a hospitality statement with TU Delft. In practice, the amenities that they can apply for vary according to the faculty or subject group, even if the amenities are equal on paper. PhD candidates with scholarships also have the right to rent allowance.

There are 2,378 PhD candidates that are hired PhD candidates and are thus employed. They receive a salary, fall under a CAO, and have the right to all sorts of provisions by TU Delft, the municipality, and the Dutch Government. There are also 295 externally funded PhD candidates who are mostly paid by companies, and 69 external PhD candidates who generally finance their doctoral programme themselves. These last two groups are also not employed by TU Delft and sign a hospitality statement.

Apart from the University of Groningen (RUG), TU Delft has the most grant doctoral students, both in number and percentage (14 percent of the total number of doctoral students). The RUG’s figures are somewhat distorted because the PhD candidate of the controversial experiment with ‘promotiestudenten’ are included in the same category as PhD candidates with a scholarship. After TU Delft, Leiden University (350, 9 percent of the total number of PhD candidates) and Utrecht University (270, 7 percent of the total number of PhD candidates) have the most scholarship PhD candidates.


The only reason that Swarnim can survive is thanks to his wife. She joined him in the Netherlands a year later and found a job in a supermarket. This gives some room, even if it is not enough to build a full life. “We are both 34 and are thinking of starting a family, but this is financially not feasible at the moment. We have to put off our plans for children until after my doctoral dissertation defence,” says Swarnim.

A family is financially unfeasible for us now

Delta spoke to several PhD candidates who are only able to survive because of the income of their partners. Rama from Indonesia, for example, lives here with his wife and two children. As he has children, Rama receives an additional grant from the Indonesian Government and his wife too works in a supermarket. Before she and the children came to the Netherlands, he used his savings to make ends meet. Other PhD candidates that Delta spoke to as well were drawing on their savings.

Stress and isolation
As a single person, doctoral candidate Marcus’ grant is not enough for him to pay his rent and buy food. He budgets for everything, buys in bulk to last six weeks, and makes sure he does not eat too much. He feels burdened by his financial insecurity. “Every time I go shopping for groceries I have to stop and think if I can afford it.”

Anneke Kastelein, Chair of Promovendi Netwerk Nederland (PNN, the national interest group for and by PhD candidates), sees that the perilous financial position has another effect. It isolates them. “PhD candidates with scholarships cannot just go out for dinner or grab a coffee with colleagues. This makes it very hard to do things in your free time or maintain a bond with your colleagues.”

Doctoral candidate Marcus recognises this. He can only scrape together enough money a couple of times a year to do something fun with friends, such as at Christmas. “I feel guilty for months afterwards. It would be great to not experience that guilt for a change.”

‘PhD candidates with scholarships are the undocumented people of academia’

Finances are not the only problem that PhD candidates with scholarships face: they are constantly caught between a rock and a hard place be it at TU Delft, the tax authority, or other agencies. As the researchers are neither employees nor students*, they do not receive childcare or healthcare allowances, cannot always take maternity leave, they do not accrue vacation days and pensions and it is hard for them to find affordable housing. Their income also does not go up with inflation as they do not qualify for the mandatory salary increases in CAOs. Employee-PhD candidates do qualify for these. “PhD candidates with scholarships are the undocumented people of the university world,” says supervisor Pande.

A TU Delft spokesperson says that PhD candidates with scholarships can ‘in principle use the same’ facilities as other PhD candidates. Despite this, what TU Delft facilities the PhD candidates with scholarships receive varies among faculties and even subject groups. One may receive a travel budget for conferences, like employee PhD candidates, while another may have to pay the costs themselves.* And while PhD candidates usually receive a laptop from TU Delft, some will only get one after much insistence despite paying a bench fee. Or they may not get one at all. PNN’s Chair Kastelein says that “Employee doctoral candidates can always call on the basic provisions set up in CAOs or university policies. This is a right. But PhD candidates with scholarships do not have this right.” Kastelein says that this puts a lot of pressure on PhD candidates with scholarships, “While they may not always come from cultures where it is standard to stand up for yourself.”

It took months before I knew what I had the right to

Rama from Indonesia suspects that this is not so much intentional, as unawareness. He is the coordinator for about 10 Indonesian PhD candidates with scholarships. “Indonesian PhD candidates all pay a bench fee and we all fall under the same fund. Still, some only received a work laptop from TU Delft after a lot of pushing. I believe that departments have so little experience with PhD candidates with scholarships that they automatically assume that we do not have any rights to certain facilities.” It is also not always clear to the PhD candidates with scholarships themselves. “It took months before I knew what I had the right to,” says doctoral candidate Alisa from Indonesia.

International researchers are sometimes dependent on the efforts of their supervisor. “When I came here, my supervisor gave me a list of the facilities that I could use,” says Rama. “A PhD candidate with a scholarship who came to work at the same department did not get it. I had to explain her rights to her as there is no information about this at TU Delft.”

‘Supervisors too get stuck in a quagmire of difficulties at their universities

Kastelein at PNN sees that supervisors are sometimes also stuck in the middle. “Most supervisors try to help their PhD candidates where they can, but they too get stuck in a quagmire of difficulties at their universities.”

Doctoral candidate Marcus could not approach his supervisor. “My supervisor told me that I had no right to facilities as I was a PhD candidate with a scholarship, while I heard from colleagues that my predecessor, who was also a PhD candidate with a scholarship, did have rights.” So he went to the head of his subject group. “The head looked up my rights and after that I was able to attend conferences and workshops at TU Delft’s expense.”

It seems that in a few cases, PhD candidates with scholarships are being misused. Delta spoke to a grant student whose supervisor asked him/her to guide master students and take on the role of teaching assistant, while he/she and his/her grant giving body did not want this. Delta put this issue before PNN Chair Kastelein. She called it an ‘unusual case’ as most universities have a policy in which PhD candidates with scholarships may not teach. She is aware of cases at other universities where they do teach, sometimes voluntarily and sometimes under pressure. “On the one hand, some PhD candidates with scholarships do want to teach as it is important in their subject area to have this on their CV. On the other hand, we see that teaching puts extra pressure on them while teaching is rarely mentioned when they are accepted.”

After checking with TU Delft, it transpired that teaching is not forbidden for PhD candidates with scholarships. The TU Delft spokesperson echoes PNN’s position that teaching can enhance job opportunities, but that it can also jeopardise the time that the researchers can spend on their research. According to TU Delft it is rare that PhD candidates with scholarships have teaching tasks. The spokesperson points to a questionnaire sent at the end of 2022 which shows that less than 5% of PhD candidates on grants say that they teach. He adds that “Furthermore, this will also depend on the requirements of the grantmaking body, and not on TU Delft.”*

No representation
What will not improve their situation is the fact that PhD candidates with scholarships do not have a legally protected body to submit their complaints or problems. Their ‘undefined’ status means that they are not legally represented by either the Student Council or the Works Council. The Works Council Chair, Menno Blaauw, says that the Works Council can take the initiative to bring forward problems faced by PhD candidates with scholarships and other groups at TU Delft that are not officially in employment. “This could be when we pick up signals from the UPC (the University PhD Council, the central PhD candidate council, Eds.). We listen to everyone on campus.” To date, the Works Council has not put any specific problems faced by PhD candidates with scholarships on the agenda.

According to Kastelein of the PNN one of the consequences of this is that there is little awareness about the problems that PhD candidates with scholarships face. “People are always surprised when I tell them that their income is so low or that they do not have access to the same facilities as employed PhD candidates.”

They can approach the faculty PhD council and  the University PhD Council (UPC) for advice and to lodge complaints. The UPC even has a PhD candidate with a scholarship on its board. There is, however, one problem: the UPC does not have the same legal status as the Works Council, the Student Council and their committees, even if employed PhD candidates may stand for election for these representative councils. Nevertheless, the UPC raised the issue of the problems caused by inflation last year at TU Delft, says David Agoungbome, a UPC Board Member. UPC also alerted Delta.

Misuse of power
PhD candidates with scholarships can also approach the Confidential Advisors and the staff ombudsman. But doing so seems to be a big step. In 2021, Sandra van der Hor, the former external Confidential Advisor, wrote that PhD candidates usually only dared lodge reports of undesirable behaviour such as intimidation, discrimination and the abuse of power only after their doctoral dissertation defence. “They were anxious that this would have consequences for their future career at, or even outside, TU Delft,” says Van der Hor in Delta.

This also transpired while preparing this story: most PhD candidates with scholarships did not want their real names to be used in Delta for fear of consequences. Van der Hor concluded that the position of PhD candidates – and she also includes the other three groups of PhD candidates in this – is too vulnerable and dependent. Supervisor and teacher Pande calls the position of PhD candidates with scholarships ‘beyond vulnerable’. He explains that “In general PhD candidates are already the most vulnerable group at universities. For PhD candidates with scholarships it also means that they virtually have nowhere to turn to for their problems and have no official representation at TU Delft.”

PNN Chair Kastelein shares his position. “Doctoral candidates are dependent on their institution, subject group and supervisor to obtain their doctoral degree. In the case of some PhD candidates with scholarships, their visa depends on these too. And some grants have the clause that the grant must be paid back in full if you do not graduate within four years. It is not like a job that you can resign from if you do not like the doctoral programme.” This goes beyond TU Delft PhD candidates, it is a problem around the country, she says. PNN receives so many upsetting signals that the advocacy group decided to carry out a nationwide survey. The outcomes will be made available at the end of summer.

Sky high rent
Their tenuous status also brings problems for PhD candidates with scholarships on the rental market. They are forced to rent in the most expensive sector of the market. The reason is that most landlords in Delft and its surroundings ask potential tenants for a salary slip as proof of income. But PhD candidates do not have one as they receive a grant and not a salary.

Without a salary slip I cannot move elsewhere 

Doctoral candidate Swarnim arranged official proof of income from the province in India that gives him his grant, including stamps. “The landlord did not accept this proof and wanted a salary slip.” He then went to the Human Resources Department at TU Delft to ask if they could issue proof of his grant income. They were unable to do so as Swarnim is not officially employed. He now pays about EUR 1,200 for housing. “This is my entire grant, but without a salary slip I cannot move elsewhere.” The PhD candidates that contributed to this article pay between EUR 800 and EUR 1,200 for accommodation.

Email exchange
This is not the only time that TU Delft could not or would not do anything for PhD candidates with scholarships. One Indonesian PhD candidate with a scholarship got no help when he requested help from Education & Student Affairs (ESA) and the Graduate School on behalf of about 10 other PhD candidates. The researchers had been informed by Lembaga Pengelola Dana Pendidikan (LPDP), their grant making body, that it was prepared to increase their grants because of inflation. All they needed to do was to ask an official institution such as TU Delft for confirmation in writing that the cost of living had gone up in the Netherlands.

Delta read the email exchange with ESA that followed. Among the answers of the ESA staff member was that TU Delft has no influence on the amount of grants and that Indonesian PhD candidates had opted to come to the Netherlands themselves. In answer to the question by the PhD candidate with a scholarship to whom he could turn, the staff member sent a link to purchasing power data on the website of the Netherlands Institute for Social Research.

The PhD candidate with a scholarship says that Indonesian PhD candidates with scholarships at Wageningen University and Leeds University in Britain did get an official document upon which the LPDP increased the grants. Rama can prove his statement with documentation. Delta submitted the matter in broad terms to ESA, but to protect the identities of the doctoral students involved, it was not possible to go into details. Instead, Delta asked what ESA’s policy was when fellowship students asked their own grant provider for help. No clear answer was forthcoming. The TU department, through its press spokesperson, gave a general explanation in which it said, among other things, that ESA sometimes contacts fellowship providers about their fellowship policies and is part of national conversations about funding for fellowship students.*

Adding to the income
The financial problems of PhD candidates with scholarships were known even before the recent inflation. Follow the Money (in Dutch, the entrepreneurs investigative journalism platform) and Folia (in Dutch, University van Amsterdam magazine) published articles on this issue at the end of 2022. In response to these articles, Utrecht University is investigating (in Dutch) whether it can top up the incomes of PhD candidates with scholarships. Wageningen University & Research promised to do so and in March Radboud University Nijmegen’s Executive Board decided to increase the grants to EUR 1,700 the next academic year.* The University of Groningen and the University of Amsterdam have topped up the incomes for a while.

All the PhD candidates with scholarships that Delta talked to say that a top-up from TU Delft would be more than welcome. Delta asked TU Delft if the high rate of inflation is a valid reason to talk to a local tax advisor to make this possible. This is not the case. ‘Topping up of grants is not TU Delft’s standard policy. It involves labour rights and has financial implications. The degree that these play a role also differs between tax regions’, wrote the press spokesperson in answer to a series of questions. TU Delft does say that it is involved in the national consultation of Universities of The Netherlands about PhD candidates with scholarships and the amounts of their grants. “Efforts are being made to achieve greater uniformity through nationwide negotiations on contract terms, including financial preconditions and inflation adjustment with the most common scholarship providers.”*  Also, TU says it sometimes contacts foreign scholarship providers itself. Incidentally, TU – like all other Dutch universities – does sometimes waive the bench and tuition fees of scholarship

(Illustration: Liam van Dijk)
PhD candidates with a scholarship are popular

According to the Dutch newspaper NRC, universities save about 260,000 euros in personnel costs per PhD student in four years by using scholarship PhDs: after all, universities do not pay the fellows a salary. In addition, universities receive a PhD bonus of about 80 thousand euros per PhD researcher and scholarship PhD candidates pay a bench fee, which covers many research costs. Although scholarship PhDs do not receive a salary and take home a big bag of money, Dutch universities recently told Follow the Money (in Dutch) that they do not earn from scholarship PhDs. To NOS (in Dutch), a program coordinator at Utrecht University seems a lot more transparent. She says universities are happy to engage with Chinese fellowship researchers because they don’t have to pay them a salary. “They get a flight, a visa and four years’ worth of living expenses. This is attractive for us as it is a cheap option.”

Dutch universities send representatives abroad every year to recruit grant students. TU Delft says that ‘in general’ it does not recruit PhD candidates with scholarships. However, it does join recruitment activities in which ‘PhD candidates that have scholarships or their own funding have a significantly higher chance of getting a meeting (with a university representative, Eds.) states an event page. The two largest recruitment events for Dutch universities take place every year in Beijing and Shanghai. Talented Chinese researchers are connected to potential supervisors at Dutch and international universities. In Indonesia too, researchers and potential Dutch supervisors meet at special recruitment events. In 2022, this event was even held at the Dutch Embassy. Radboud University Nijmegen became discredited in 2020 over three vacancies (in Dutch) for fellowship doctoral candidates. The university took the vacancies offline soon after.

The vast difference in how employee and fellowship PhD candidates are treated gives the latter group a sense of helplessness, injustice and undervaluation. Swarnim says that “We are just as good researchers as employed PhD candidates, while we earn less. TU Delft refuses to help financially. It feels as though TU Delft does not see us as anything other than cheap labour.” Alisa is saddened when she thinks of the difference in salary between herself and employed PhD candidates. “But I don’t think we can do anything about it.”

Supervisor Saket Pande shares this feeling. “PhD candidates with scholarships are hugely driven and talented. Yet, I believe that they are viewed as ‘less’ at TU Delft.”

‘Universities want the benefits but not the costs.’

PhD candidate Marcus seems to have little fighting spirit left. He has stopped getting worked up about his treatment, he says. After all, that only takes energy that he can put to good use in his doctoral research. “It is mentally and emotionally draining to have to fight for even the smallest things just because I am a PhD candidate with a scholarship. I have little energy left to fight. I just want to survive my doctoral dissertation defence and then leave quietly.”

Kastelein of the PNN is critical of universities that recruit PhD candidates with scholarships, but then offer little help. “They want the benefits but not the costs.” She stresses that the problems must not lead to PhD candidates with scholarships not being taken on anymore. “Universities must do everything they can to improve the position of PhD candidates with scholarships. They are just as good as employee PhD candidates. So treat them as such,” says Kastelein.

UPC Board Member Agoungbome points to TU Delft’s Strategic Framework which states that diversity and inclusion are important values. “PhD candidates with scholarships often come from low and middle-income countries. If you put obstacles in the way of PhD candidates with scholarships, you run the risk that only researchers from wealthy or Western countries come to the Netherlands. You are then not a diverse and inclusive university anymore.”


Tips from PhD candidates for TU Delft:

  • Check whether a salary increase is possible. “It would give us breathing room,” says Swarnim.
  • Make sure that there is somewhere at TU Delft where PhD candidates with scholarships can express their concerns and complaints that has judicial clout.
  • Ensure preventive information provision. “If you receive an A4 in your first week in which your rights are explained, you would avoid situations in which we do not claim our rights,” says Rama.

Journalistic accountability

Over the last few months, Delta spoke to, phoned and emailed more than 12 PhD candidates with scholarships from seven countries that work at TU Delft. Delta also spoke to PhD candidates with scholarships at other universities. The Editorial Office also approached several supervisors of grant students, but only one of them was prepared to be interviewed. Delta did its best to verify all the information it gathered from PhD candidates with scholarships with TU Delft itself. In one case this was not possible without risking revealing the identity of the PhD candidate in question. Delta asked the researcher – the doctoral candidate that teaches – to prove his information with documentation. This was done satisfactorily in the eyes of Delta. The real names of the PhD candidates with scholarships are known to Delta’s Editorial Office.

News editor Annebelle de Bruijn

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