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If you are been accepted into a Master's program which grants a scholarship to its participants, they just send you a letter outlining the scholarship in a brief manner. Is this common in academia?

Question:

Is it common in academia to not have any written "contract" when you get a scholarship?

Edit:

I am mostly interested in Europe (in particular Germany if it makes a difference)

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  • For some of us there is a very real difference between "getting a scholarship" and being accepted into a program, either MS or PhD. A "scholarship" often means that there are no duties involved other than remaining a student in good standing. Can you explain more what you are asking? I'll note also that the policies are extremely variable around the world.
    – Buffy
    Commented May 30, 2020 at 11:09
  • @Buffy Thansk for the comment; is it clear now?
    – Our
    Commented May 30, 2020 at 11:16
  • Is it a bona fide scholarship, i.e. a bunch of money with no strings attached? Or do you actually have a lot of duties, like attendance, and taking orders from your advisor/head-of-lab/PI etc.?
    – einpoklum
    Commented May 30, 2020 at 20:53
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    What country is likely important in this case. Commented May 31, 2020 at 1:18
  • @StephenG see my edit please.
    – Our
    Commented May 31, 2020 at 12:07

3 Answers 3

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I have had a scholarship in Germany where the letters (their offer and my acceptance letter) together were the actual contract.

A scholarship in Germany is a mostly one-sided contract: the funding agency grants the scholarship. There are almost no strings attached for the recipient of an academic scholarship since the purpose of the scholarships is basically to give the recipient carte blanche to pursue their research/studies (usually there is a requirement to write a reports about what was done/achieved every so often, there may be requirements to present your work/achievements if asked to). But the scholarship cannot enforce working hours or the like (that would make it an emplyoment contract), and also no outcome (that is not even possible for an employment contract).

Since scholarships are exempt from income tax in Germany, it may make sense to take the grant letter to the local service desk of the tax office and have them check that it fulfills their criteria.
They'll tell you (at no cost) whether any further information is needed, and whether you need to submit a tax declaration/where to put the exempt income.

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Caveat: A US view, and there are exceptions even here as noted below.

There will, I think, always be an "agreement" even if it isn't a formal contract. It probably isn't something that is negotiated, with the student having any say. But accepting such a scholarship is a formal agreement to abide by some set of rules, that may be just statements of policy somewhere, perhaps visible on a web site. All the details may be spelled out in the letter of acceptance, but it is more likely that the student simply makes agreement to obey the rules in force.

The most common "rule" is that the student maintain "good standing" which involves something about GPA, perhaps, and not being sanctioned for misconduct. Whether it rises to the level of a "contract" however, depends on too many things (local law,...) to have a definite answer here.

I suspect that in many cases the (informal) contract can be modified by the university without explicit consent of the student. The student's only likely recourse is to accept the new terms or stop receiving funding.

Note also that this differs (drastically) in some places and some situations. It also depends on what you mean by "scholarship". If there are specific duties attached (not the common case in US) then the contract is more likely to be a formal one. In particular a TA position has certain duties and so additional requirements.

If a scholarship has no duties attached then it is probably also possible for the university to terminate it for many reasons, including financial ones. But the student can also leave the university (possibly needing to return pre-paid funds) without penalty. This might be different if there were a formal contract.

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  • A scholarship in Germany (Stipendium) can have only very few strings attached by legal definition. E.g., it cannot have working hours specified. Typical requirements that are possible are: written report after each term, possibly presenting at the funding agency if asked to, duty to take at least n workshops out of a list of workshopy they hold (at the cost of the funding agency). Commented May 31, 2020 at 12:34
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    @cbeleitesunhappywithSX, yes, and thanks for your Germany specific answer.
    – Buffy
    Commented May 31, 2020 at 12:38
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EDIT: Answer not updated for changed question.

Yes, the letter often functions as a contract.

If the position is unionized, the contract between the union and the university applies to the person who accepts the letter.

This is not legal advice, and this is not the law stackexchange.

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    AFAIK, a scholarship cannot be unionized in Germany since by definition a scholarship is very much not an employment. Commented May 31, 2020 at 12:30
  • @cbeleitesunhappywithSX The question changed. Commented May 31, 2020 at 14:11
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    Instead of writing "Answer not updated for changed question", you could better write to which country your answer applies, which would have been useful anyway. Commented May 31, 2020 at 14:47
  • @MassimoOrtolano Country does not necessarily determine unionization, so no, that doesn't work. In my opinion, the answer is still correct, just not specific to the more narrow question. Commented Jun 1, 2020 at 0:31

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