Doctoral students to secure better working rights and conditions

Sweden’s Higher Education Ministry is to give doctoral students better working conditions and rights, in legislation being put before parliament.

The ministry wants to increase the number of doctoral students employed by higher education institutions, make insurance obligatory for them, and give doctoral students improved rights when they are ill or have children.

Jan Björklund, the higher education minister, said that if Sweden were to recruit the best brains to doctoral education, they had to be offered good working conditions and rights.

There are some 20,000 doctorate students in Sweden, 56% of them employed by higher education institutions, receiving a salary with ordinary working rights, and security for illness and parental leave.

A further 19% receive education support of SEK15,500 (US$2,300) a month (taxable, and with some financial security), or a doctoral grant that can vary in size and does not always carry the same working rights.

An estimated 5% of PhD students are employed within the higher education sector but outside of higher education institutions, at hospitals or other places with varying degrees of job security.

Approximately 20% are grouped in an 'other' category for income status – doctoral students who either have private funding, study part-time, or have exceeded the time limit for funding but have not lost their right to deliver their dissertation.

The Swedish Agency for Higher Education (HSV) recently demonstrated, in a survey of 1,020 doctoral candidates who began their studies between 1999 and 2001 and failed to complete by 2009, that 30% gave family reasons as the main reason. More women than men reported family reasons for dropping out.

Currently, the regulation requires higher education institutions to provide an employment position for candidates when two years of the doctoral degree requirements are left. The new regulation extends this to students with three years of doctoral degree requirements left.

According to the legislation, a long-term goal is for all PhD students in Sweden to have the same working rights and social security as staff members, and to drop the grant system.

Björklund told the radio station Ekot that Sweden needs to recruit gifted young people aged 25 to 35 years to a research career. Many of them will be at a stage in life when they are seeking to make a family, Björklund said, and need a better guarantee that they will not be delayed if they have a child.

Björklund also said that out of a total budget of SEK30 billion, the extra cost for higher education institutions, estimated by the state insurance system Kammarkollegiet at SEK10,000 a year per doctoral candidate not employed, would not be too burdensome.

Lund University Pro-rector Ingalill Rahm Hallberg said that safety at work and good employment conditions were essential, to recruit the best doctorate candidates. “I am therefore glad that the government has taken a step in the right direction,” she said.

Ingeborg van der Ploeg, central director of doctoral education at Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, told University World News that the plan would enable recruitment of the best doctoral candidates.

“The proposal will increase the social security situation for many of our PhD students. But it will be important to follow up whether there will be fewer PhD students, and [it becomes] more common to recruit postdocs.”

She said Swedish universities would have to use additional internal or external funding to make it possible for foreign students with stipends or allowances from their home countries to come to Sweden for doctoral education.

“We have already improved our rules for external stipends-allowances, wanting to avoid the risk that a foreign student coming with an allowance is accepted mainly due to less cost for the researcher.”

Hallberg said clear communication with foreign doctoral students was needed before they decided to move to Sweden, to inform them about what insurance was paid by the university and what was paid by the student, to ensure that they had adequate social protection.

Kåre Bremer, rector of Stockholm University, wrote on his blog: “I think it is timely to abolish the grant system and introduce employment status for all doctorate students. But it is a costly reform, that will have as a consequence that the number of doctoral students will decrease, if higher education institutions are not compensated for the increased expenses.”

The Swedish doctoral student union has welcomed the proposal, but stated that it thinks doctoral students should be governmental employees from day one of their doctoral studies.

Ricardo Rosado, vice president of the Brussels-based European Council of Doctorate Candidates and Junior Researchers (EURODOC), told University World News: “Recognising doctoral candidates as employees from day one has been one of EURODOC’s main goals for several years.

“While the proposal is a clear step forward in improving conditions for doctoral training in Sweden, we support the Swedish doctorate student union and urge the full implementation of the European charter and code for researchers.”