In May 2020, Dutch universities agreed with trades unions to use 0.45% of their so-called loonruimte – the maximum amount that salaries may rise – for extending the temporary contracts of research colleagues who were experiencing delays because of the corona crisis. In practice, these temporary research colleagues are usually doctoral candidates and postdocs, and the agreements made cover new contracts up to December 2021.
To date, most of the almost EUR 1.5 million has been spent on contract extensions and there is now EUR 428,442 left in the loonruimte pot. These figures are from the Human Resources (HR) Department. While in 2020 the number of contract extensions peaked at 20 doctoral candidates and postdocs, this year that number is 60. So far in 2021, 12 applications have been rejected, in part because the contracts would end in 2022 while the current ruling is valid until 31 December 2021. The other rejections were doctoral candidates and postdocs who were at the start of their research. TU Delft’s rationale is that they have enough time to make up any delays. Two faculties stand out: Applies Sciences (AS) with the highest amount of applicants. And CEG with the least amount of applications compared to the total amount of PhD-students. Last year CEG announced that the fewest possible number of researchers would have to draw on the reserved loonruimte. In doing this, the Faculty shared the position of the Economic Activities, Research Financing and Third Party Agreements corona working group led by CEG Dean Jan Dirk Jansen.
While more doctoral candidates and postdocs have been able to get some compensation, it seems that the ruling is still opaque. Earlier this year, the University PhD Council (UPC) had already asserted that most PhDs and postdocs do not even know that the ruling exists let alone the conditions that are attached to it.
That concern is now backed up with figures. A joint UPC and TU Delft trades unions (AOb, CNV and FNV) questionnaire shows that 85% of the doctoral candidates and postdocs are not aware of the loonruimte ruling. The questionnaire, which was run between 1 January and 8 March, was filled in by 169 doctoral candidates and postdocs. In total, TU Delft has about 3,000 doctoral candidate and 536 postdoc positions. While the questionnaire is thus not representative, UPC and the trades unions believe that there is cause for concern. “Doctoral candidates in almost all the faculties responded. The outcomes show that the communication around the ruling is inadequate,” says Vittorio Nespeca on behalf of the UPC. Of the respondents who say that they plan to apply for an extension, almost 63% do not know who they should approach and the conditions. “There is so much confusion,” says Nespeca. Over the last few months, he has gathered doctoral candidates’ experiences. “The stories that they told me show that some faculties have even not communicated the ruling at all.”
He blames this on a lack of consistent communication. TU Delft intentionally left all communication about the ruling in the hands of the faculties. The Industrial Design Engineering (IDE), Aerospace Engineering (AE) and Applied Sciences (AS) Faculties asked their Deputy Heads of Department to communicate the fact that there was a loonruimte ruling to their departments and to inform the Faculties’ Graduate Schools and PhD Councils accordingly. AE also issued information about the ruling in a weekly Faculty newsletter. According to the spokespersons of the Faculties, the ruling was sufficiently communicated. However, information about the ruling may not have reached all researchers on temporary contracts.
It is not only the communications that TU Delft puts in the hands of the faculties, it is also decisions regarding who is eligible for contract extensions. The faculties listed the relevant cases after which the deans decided who had the right to compensation. The UPC believes that the execution of the ruling was inconsistent. “I understand that TU Delft wants to be flexible and have each faculty offer customisation, but the process has been too random. I heard from one PhD Candidate that he will not get an extension, while a PhD Candidate in another faculty who was in exactly the same position received a three month extension.
‘The problem is the communication’
This situation is not unique to TU Delft, says Rosanne Anholt, Chair of the Promovendi Netwerk Nederland (the network that advocates for the interests of doctoral candidates). “The problem is the communication,” she says. “When the agreements about the loonruimte ruling were made in May last year, we immediately asked the university doctoral candidate groups how it was being arranged at their universities. They were all groping in the dark.”
The poor communication was flagged at the TU Delft Local Consultation Body to the Executive Board by both the Works Council and the trades unions. Rector Magnificus Tim van der Hagen promised to discuss the communication issue with others such as the deans, but saw little promise in ‘sharing information about the corona compensation more widely’. “The risk is that everyone will jump on the extension bandwagon.”
Fear that the situation will be repeated
In the meantime, the Dutch Research Council (NWO) has made more funds available for the scientists who are facing delays because of corona. Of the EUR 20 million available nationally, about EUR 1.6 million is allocated to TU Delft. Again, this was not communicated to doctoral candidates and postdocs, said TU Delft’s central HR Department. “The time has long gone that communication is done through the departmental boards, the Graduate Schools and the faculty’s PhD Councils.” TU Delft is now considering changing this.
Nespeca and Anholt are worried that the situation will otherwise repeat itself. “I am concerned that the money will ultimately not reach the doctoral candidates that need it the most,” says Anholt.
- The UPC is inviting doctoral candidates’ experiences in applying for contract extensions during the corona crisis. Email email@example.com if you wish to share your experiences.