Better conditions on the horizon for scholarship holders

Doctoral students living on relatively low external scholarships should get terms of employment that are more equal to those on doctoral studentships. This is the hope of the University’s Education Board, which has approved the faculties topping up the income of doctoral students on scholarships. However, the Faculty of Law and the University’s employment lawyers have registered reservations against the decision, but for different reasons.

Cecilia Lundberg

Cecilia Lundberg is chair of the University’s third-cycle education committee. Photo: Charlotte Carlberg Bärg

The financing of research studies has been a protracted unresolved issue, and not only at Lund University. Since doctoral grants were abolished, the primary source of funding is doctoral studentships, which provide job security and social security benefits. The majority of doctoral students today are employed on studentships.

However, the University has continued to recruit international doctoral students, primarily from outside Europe, who fund their studies with scholarships, often from their home country. The lower limit for accepting a doctoral student on an external scholarship is SEK 12 500 a month, which is several thousand kronor lower than the net salary of an employed doctoral student. This has led to major differences in the terms of employment for doctoral students who work together but have different funding.

“We maintain that doctoral studentships should be the first choice for funding, but it is important that we continue to be able to receive scholarship-funded doctoral students. This is partly because different disciplines have different cultures – in some, prestigious scholarships are highly coveted by doctoral students as they look good on their CV. It is also partly because scholarships are the main type of funding in international recruitment”, says Cecilia Lundberg, chair of the University’s third-cycle education committee.

The accepted level for scholarships was set at the low rate of SEK 12 500 a month by the University Board in 2013. The aim was to avoid making it impossible to recruit talented international doctoral students with prestigious, but small, scholarships.

“We had proposed that scholarships should be in line with doctoral students’ salaries, but the University Board said no. The board asked us to investigate how the University could top up the scholarship holders’ income so that their terms of employment were more in line with those on doctoral studentships”, explains Cecilia Lundberg.

It has been a tough nut to crack, she says. Tax revenue cannot be used to establish internal supplementary scholarships, and it would not be possible to offer scholarship holders posts at the University without their scholarships being regarded as a salary and subject to tax. A later interpretation of the rules by the Swedish Tax Agency reveals new possibilities. The Education Board’s new decision means that supplementary scholarships can be established using external funding, for example from private foundations (with their approval). It will also be possible for the faculties to offer doctoral students on scholarships fixed-term employment as a way to supplement their income.

Judging from the reservations against the decision, however, the nut has still not been cracked. At the February meeting of the Education Board, the Human Resources division stated that by offering fixed-term posts the University may be violating employment legislation, which could result in fines or even a prison sentence.

The Faculty of Law made a reservation on different grounds. They are concerned that the number of doctoral students on scholarships will increase, which goes against the University’s basic principle that doctoral students should as a rule have employment with the security and benefits that entails.

It is first and foremost the faculties of Medicine, Engineering and Science that are interested in receiving doctoral students on external scholarships, as this is important for international research collaboration. The School of Economics and Management also has doctoral students with external scholarships, but these are often higher.

In their consultation response before the University Board decisions in 2013, the Faculties of Humanities and Theology said they wanted to see scholarship funding banned in the long run, because there had been several cases in which shortcomings had been uncovered in the social security provisions and other conditions. The doctoral students were also critical at the time. However, with the exception of the reservation from the Faculty of Law, the Education Board has now supported the possibility of supplementary funding.

“We see this as a step in the right direction. It is not the perfect solution, but it is the best to avoid large discrepancies between those who come here on scholarships and those who are employed”, says Victor Abrahamsson, a doctoral student and student representative on the Education Board.

The conditions for doctoral students on scholarships have gradually improved over a long time, notes Cecilia Lundberg. Not long ago, scholarships were completely unregulated. There was no minimum level, no guaranteed insurance and benefits, and sometimes there was talk of scholarship holders just being exploited as cheap labour.

“Now the University has a compulsory insurance policy for all doctoral students with scholarships – this was the result of a Kammarkollegiet decision a year ago. The new opportunity for supplementary funding further improves the situation and reduces the differences in terms of employment. At the same time, we are not departing from the principle that the primary means of funding should be doctoral studentships”, says Cecilia Lundberg.

Britta Collberg

Doctoral students on scholarships

Number of full-time doctoral students with scholarships at LU: 120, of whom most are non-Europeans with scholarships from their home country

Minimum accepted level for external scholarships: SEK 12 500 a month

Starting salary for doctoral studentships: SEK 16 500–SEK 18 500 after tax

The differences are to be reduced through:

  • supplementary scholarships from external funding
  • fixed-term appointments for doctoral students on scholarships

Estimated cost for faculties that receive most scholarship holders:

Faculty of Medicine (20 doctoral students with external scholarships):

SEK 1.4 million for supplementary scholarships; SEK 3.1 million for employment of scholarship holders

Faculty of Science (18 doctoral students with external scholarships):

SEK 1.25 million for supplementary scholarships; SEK 2.7 million for employment of scholarship holders

Faculty of Engineering (LTH) (58 doctoral students with external scholarships):

SEK 4 million for supplementary scholarships; SEK 8.6 million for employment of scholarship holders