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Rectors: supervise and assess all PhD candidates equally


How do we safeguard the quality of dissertations, and how to we ensure all PhD candidates receive quality supervision? After the commotion surrounding the ‘PhD factory’ at Tilburg University, rectors from all university announce their joint response.

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Radio show Argus announced last year that the faculty of Humanities at Tilburg University had so many external PhD candidates that it resembled a PhD factory. One professor supervised no fewer than 77 PhD candidates in a six-year period, and other professors were making extra money by supervising PhDs.

External PhD candidates aren’t part of research groups, write their dissertations in their own time, and barely use the facilities of the university. But: the university does get PhD compensation for them. Critics say external PhD candidates are used as a business model, and fear they sometimes may unjustly receive their doctorates. Parliament and the minister called for clarification.

Register all PhDs
The board of rectors of university association VSNU takes the criticism seriously. Especially given the increasing numbers of PhD candidates, it’s important that the universities supervise and assess them in similar ways. A committee of four rectors drew up some principles for ‘A healthy practice in the Dutch PhD system’.

From now on, all types of PhD candidates will have to be registered in a clear way, they say. At the moment, there is no national overview of the numbers of external PhDs and bursary PhDs. Additionally, all PhDs should be registered with a graduate school or a comparable institute of a university. That means they’ll be part of a network, and will be able to take training courses. External PhD candidates will have to be registered there at least two years before defending their dissertation.

The rectors are also calling for implementation of the four-eyes principle in supervision: at least two (co-)supervisors should be involved. After the start of the PhD track, they’ll create an education and development programme together. Furthermore, PhDs who aren’t employed by a university should also have access to online services and the complaint mechanisms.

More ‘teeth’
PhD Network Netherlands (PNN), which serves the interests of PhD candidates, says the advice is an important step in the right direction. The network is happy universities will treat different types of PhD candidates equally, but hopes the follow-up advice from the committee will have ‘more teeth’ which deals with the perverse incentives of the PhD system.

The PNN feels it’s ‘indisputably an improvement’ that external PhD candidates will have to register with the graduate school of their university two years before defending their dissertations. But it would be even better if, like with other PhD candidates, this happens immediately at the start of their PhD tracks.

PNN also supports the idea of professionalising and improving the supervision of PhD candidates. The training should be mandatory for all supervisors who don’t yet have an elaborate, positive track record.

The PhD network had hoped the committee would have included comments on the unfair pressure some universities enact on their supervisors to deliver a high number of PhDs. Examples of this include establishing a mandatory minimum number of PhD candidates per professor, and bonuses for those who supervise many PhD candidates.

Workgroup to identify ‘perverse incentives’
The PNN thinks it’s a shame its suggestion of establishing a maximum number of PhDs per supervisor was rejected. Some foreign universities do have a similar maximum, to prevent professors from supervising an unjustifiably high number of PhDs undetected.

Furthermore, more should be done to prevent and counter bad supervision. A PhD candidate should at the very least have the possibility of switching supervisors. In the worst-case scenario, the ‘ius promovendi’ should be taken away from a supervisor, as recently happened in Tilburg. Without measures like these, the advice remains ‘toothless’, the PNN warns.

The four rectors will present their new recommendations before the summer. To prevent inequality between different types of PhDs and to avoid possible perverse incentives from universities, an administrative group will identify the reimbursements universities provide for supervisions. This workgroup will also formulate starting points about the spending of PhD compensations within the university.


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