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Foreign PhD students tell KTH: Pay promised cash

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The inner courtyard at the KTH campus. File photo: KTH/Flickr
07:24 CET+01:00
The Royal Institute of Technology (KTH) will look into potential employment solutions for PhD students on scholarships, many of them foreigners, after a trade union slammed the lauded college for not keeping its promises.

Roughly 250 of the institute's 1,600 PhD students survive on scholarships that can range from €800 to €1,500. In 2009, KTH's management decided to supplement their incomes, using as a watermark the scholarship amount granted by the Swedish Institute (SI), the body tasked with promoting Sweden and Swedish culture abroad. It meant that PhD students were guaranteed 12,000 kronor ($1,840) a month.

That level was amended to 15,000 kronor last summer., with manystudents assuming that KTh would follow SI's suit. The PhD students in question were told that KTH would make an announcement on the increase once the autumn term began, recalls PhD student Himanshu Kataria, who despite now being employed and no longer on a scholarship has lobbied hard to resolve the impasse.

"The discussion began, but nobody could decide," he tells The Local. "The departments said, 'We don't have money', then KTH itself said, 'We don't have the money'."

The months passed and most of the students' monthly income remained unchanged. Some got a few months of increased pay, which were then withdrawn.

"Three thousand kronor might look minuscule, but it's an increase of 25 percent and can fulfill a great deal of the daily requirements for a PhD student," said Kataria. "Most of them are in their thirties, and many have families."

Because KTH had pledged to follow the SI scholarship level - using it as a benchmark - many students took for granted that they would have a bit more to live on, the academics' union Saco noted in a furious article addressed to the head of KTH last week.

"In addition to this odd arbitrary behaviour from KTH, many individuals are affected financially as they expected the income increase and adjusted their expenses accordingly," union representatives wrote.

Many of the students receive grants from their home country or international organizations, which means their base income can fluctuate according to currency exchange rates. Kataria, having himself seen the Indian rupee tumble while the Swedish krona remained strong, underscored that PhD students could end up with less money per month at the end of their research than they had to begin with four years before. 

As the issue dragged on, the academics union Saco accused KTH of answering repeated questions with silence. It also noted that the non-scholarship PhD students earned between 26,400 and 31,400 kronor a month, which, among others things, meant there were contributions made to pensions and social security. That in turn gave them, but not the scholarship students, access to parental leave, sick leave, and salary insurance, for example.

"When you feel you are being treated differently, it leaves you in a pinch," Kataria said. "We're working the same but (our colleague) is getting double what I get paid."

On Wednesday, the institute's principal replied to the criticism in writing.

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"There is very limited scope to raise a PhD scholarship retroactively," wrote Peter Gudmundson, who declined to comment further on the matter when contacted by The Local. "KTH is now investigating if it's possible to supplement the scholarship with part-time employment."

Such a move could, however, be mired in legal difficulties, he added.

"We have to find a solution that does not put the students at risk of retroactively owing tax on their scholarships," Gudmundson noted.  

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