Interview rector magnificus 2011

‘The best solution would be just to have bursary students to be able to teach’

GRIN had an introductory chat with rector magnificus Elmer Sterken a little while ago. We talked about money, teaching, rules and daily practice. We now present a transcription of this conversation.

Jonathan Mall: Could you express in one sentence what you think the bursary and the AIO
systems are about and where the differences are about?

Prof. Sterken: “The main difference between AIO stage and the bursary stage is basically the legal position. So as an AIO you’re officially a faculty member of the university, that’s the Dutch model. And as a bursary student, you’re a student. So the legal position differs. From the legal law perspective, there is a different position. And it basically has to do with the rights that you own, if you get label or if you get laid off, if there’s a delay in your studies. Especially at the ending of your contract, there are differences in the cost. And also there is a difference in the cost because we then need to pay the additional level cost for bursary students as opposed to the AIO position.”

Since you’ve already talked about costs: is there a connection between you being in favour of that bursary system and, let’s say, budget cuts?

Prof. Sterken: “No, we were only very much in favour for the bursary model couple of years ago here in Groningen. I think we were one of the front runners. And the bursary model basically gave rights to discretion of departments you know, to look at the states of AIO and the bursary students and then that time the department said okay, there is no difference in task so there should be no basic difference in the legal position. And that gave rise to a case in court that we run against this decision. It explains that we’re very much in favour of the bursary model. It’s important for the university and in the name of course of the university students, as we can have as many students using this as we like to have, and because the bursary model is much cheaper, we can have more students.”

Q: did he perhaps refer with ‘department’ to the Ministry of Education???

Corinna: But you didn’t really answer the question. The question was whether you see a relation in the current discussion about budget costs for university and the bursary.

Prof Sterken: “I couldn’t give you answer because there is no direct link. Because we were
working on the model a couple of years ago, long before the recent budget cuts came to
action.”

Corinna: But still. When you’re just saying that couple of years ago we started to favour the
bursary system and just last week or so stopped it.

Prof Elsmer: “Because we were forced to stop, we were forced to stop the system. Parliament took the decision that the legal position of the AIO is identical to the bursary students. And that gave an implicit blocking of the bursary model. So universities were forced to treat new PhD’s as AIO’s. And it no longer allowed us to recruit Dutch bursary students. So, there is a difference between Dutch and foreign students.”

Jonathan: What about the difference in time which bursary or AIO students have?

Prof Sterken: Yes, there is, although I don’t know recent evidence to precise numbers. I saw that bursary students finish more often in time then regular AIO students do. Basically because the money ends, you know. That’s reason number one. Number two is that in most cases these are foreign students and they have a limited permit to work in the Netherlands, even as bursary students, so they had to go home again. Which was another reason for them to hurry. So there was a difference in the total length of the studies, also the percentage of those who finishes were higher for the bursary students to the regular AIO students.”

Corinna: I’m an AIO and I’m German, and I have a contract until 2013. I have to finish by then. Maybe I can ask with a lot of scientific arguments, I can ask my university for money, but it’s not written down that my contract will let me do that. So the money ends for the AIO’s as well for the bursaries. So that’s not a difference.

Prof Sterken: “Daily practice is that most faculties give an extension to AIO’s and not to
bursaries. So you can have a one-year extension or so, you know for whatever reason. And the evidence that we have is that most faculties are able to or were to give a one year extension.”

Corinna: So if we want to have more PhD students, which is one of the goals of the university, where is it really cheaper? Where do you see the actual savings if you take hundred bursary students or hundred AIO students?

Prof Sterken: “In terms of the money that the student can reach, when it comes to spending it’s about the same for AIO and the bursary students. But the total process we have to pay is far larger. There’s a large gap between what you take home and what the employer needs to pay, you know, in terms of legal costs, insurance, pension insurance, labour insurance. I don’t know, but it’s been talking about 30-40 per cent of additional cost, label cost that occur if we hire you as an AIO instead of a bursary student. Okay, let’s say, one-third that you have to add because of additional costs, that means if you hire additional three AIO’s, that gives basically the money for one additional bursary student. So you can hire four bursary students for the total cost of three AIO’s. Four bursary students is three IO students. And that’s a large gap.”

Jonathan: Back to differences. Bursaries cannot teach, so you miss the hundred hour of teaching possibility of teaching hours. Don’t you have to hire additional staff that will bring costs?

Prof Sterken: “I think that the maximum percentage of time you can ask an AIO to teach is 15%, but in practice I think most faculties would not bother to hire AIO’s in the first year and also not in the second year too much and they will start to ask, let’s say, for one class or so. I think this is one of the key disadvantages of the bursary model. If you don’t teach, you want to pursue an academic carrier, that can be a disadvantage once you finish. There is an individual problem there and there is problem maybe for the university because it loses some of the teaching capacity that you have if you hire AIO’s.”

Jonathan: Then does it not eat up all the savings?

Prof Sterken: “Yes, if you do the simple account and if you hire expensive professors to fill the teaching gap. But if you hire student assistants who do the work, it can be cheaper.”

Corinna: “Well, cheaper than an AIO. But if you have four bursary students, they are all not allowed to teach and this is actually what very surprises me because in my lab, where most of us are bursaries and I’m one of the only AIO’s, they all teach. I didn’t know that by law they are not allowed to teach. They have students, they supervise students, they are teaching and they are teaching a lot. And I think my lab is not the only lab where this is happening.

Prof Elsmer: Well, it is the Faculty that hires the bursary students.”

Corinna: So bursaries are all students and they have all the disadvantages and they even make them doing something which they are not allowed to do…

Prof Sterken: “Yes, that element of the contract is a bit foolish. I think we have to allow also bursary students to teach. It’s in their interest and it’s in the interest of the university.”

Jonathan: I would like to do that, I’d love to teach, it’s pretty good.

Prof Sterken: And if you pursue an academic carrier, it’s your interest also to get experience in teaching, to do not only research.

Jonathan: So, I do understand that if PhD finishes with well…a PhD, that the university receive a bonus. Is that right?

Prof Sterken: “The way the model works is that once you finish the university gets some
financial support.”

Jonathan: Around 90 000 Euros?

Prof Sterken: “No, a bit less. I think it’s around 70.500 Euros. It used to differ among the fields, in the medical school the amount was higher than in the social sciences. Now, we as a
university we have arranged that there is no more difference between the fields. We get the same allowance. But the allowance goes to the faculty. And the idea of the money is that support goes to the professors as supervisors because they invest their time in supervision, so the money is officially meant to give them a compensation for the time they invest. So we give the money to the faculties and they use it for everything. That’s it.”

Jonathan: So how do you asses the risk that it’s disappearing?

Prof Sterken: “It would be unwise since we have a low number of PhD students anyhow if you compare us to the European averages, then we are far below in terms of the number of PhD defences that we have per year. So the way I see it, it’s a kind of substitute of getting people, giving people a PhD. And from my perspective it would be wise to have the financial support, because now, you know if you don’t give this kind of financial incentive my guess would be that the faculties, as soon as they would get in trouble, they would cut down the expenses on the number of PhD students. And the main reason is because these short-term contracts are easy to stop instead of the long-term contract that we have for the faculty.”

Jonathan: So what are you allowed to do and what happens in practice? For example: we teach as part of the research group. It seems that it’s not allowed if you are a bursary so you then cannot be part of the research group.

Prof Sterken: “The best solution would be just to have bursary students to be able to teach. So my suggestion would be just to change the law, but I’m not a lawyer. So that would be my ideal solution, just to allow bursary student to teach. That’s the easy solution.”

Corinna: But they are just not allowed to be part of the research group, because… they actually do work, they do make things just as I do and I am an AIO. They have only disadvantages, they not only have a bad contract when compared to the AIO’s, they do stuff which is not in their contract. I think it’s not only in my lab but also in other labs. So they are teaching although they are not supposed to teach, although it would be good if they would do that but then why is it not in the legal status, why is it not in the contract? And why do they only have disadvantages to compare to the AIO?

Prof Sterken: “My critic is more on the AIO contracts then on the bursary contracts”.

Jonathan: What do you think the reason is for AbvaKabo to go against the bursary system? What do you think of their main point?

Prof Sterken: “I think the main issue is to protect from a labor law perspective. Being an AIO means you are entitled to more than bursary students, it’s clear. AIO’s have more social protection, in terms of insurance, pension rights, and the bursary students have basically no rights. I think that’s the main thing, I think that’s it.”

Transcript edited by Jan Blaauw