When I resumed my postgraduate studies as a part-time student, I suddenly became liable for a council tax bill of £1,203.14 per year. Here’s how I argued my case with the council.
Funded postgraduate students receive a tax-free stipend which covers living costs, and have their university fees paid by their funding body. Becoming ill or disabled during studies has a big financial impact, as not all funding bodies provide sick pay or extra financial support. On top of this, part-time postgraduates lose council tax exemption status.
The criteria for student council tax exemption are:
- ‘Undertaking a university or college full-time course which lasts for at least one academic or calendar year’
- ‘takes at least 24 weeks a year’
- ‘involves at least 21 hours of study per week during term-time’
‘To count as a full-time student, your course must’:
- ‘last at least 1 year’
- ‘involve at least 21 hours study per week’
A part-time postgraduate student studying for 21 hours per week would not receive the council tax exemption that an undergraduate studying the same hours would. The flaw in this scheme is that exemption is decided based on the tuition fees being paid; part-time students are paying reduced fees and so are not exempt. This black and white cutoff does not however take into account the difference to postgraduates whose fees are paid by their funding body, and who are unable to study full-time due to illness or disability. There is a discount for disabled people, but only if you need a whole extra room because of your disability, or space for a wheelchair.
Example of impact:
A full-time funded PhD student receives a tax-free stipend of £15,009 per year (19/20) and their university fees are paid by their funding body. They are exempt from paying council tax.
A part-time PhD student receives £7504.50 per year, their fees are paid by the funder but they are now liable to pay council tax.
The burden is even greater if a student in a shared student property becomes disabled part way through their tenancy. The maximum discount on council tax as the only non-full-time student in a household is 25%. This leaves a newly disabled postgraduate liable for 75% of the council tax on their whole student house which could cost thousands of pounds. The exception is in HMOs, where council tax is the landlord’s responsibility.
This means alongside all other problems to cope with being newly ill or disabled, there is the problem of a precarious housing situation. The options seem to be either pay the tax, or move somewhere more affordable (i.e. move in with council tax-paying professionals or into student halls where council tax is not charged).
When I resumed my studies as a part-time student, I was living in a 2 bed flat with another student. My council tax bill was suddenly £1,203.14 per year. Here’s how I appealed it.
Firstly, I tried for exemption on the basis that I was studying for 21 hours per week- the minimum course load for undergraduates to be considered full-time students. I confirmed with my supervisors and Graduate School in writing that I would be working 21 hours per week, then wrote to the council to ask for exemption. I was denied because my official course status was part-time, not full-time.
For my second, successful attempt, I collated 3 different doctors’ letters stating my disability (I just used clinic summaries that had been posted to me) and got a signed and stamped letter from my Graduate School stating that I would be working 21 hours per week. I attached these to an email where I explained that I was studying part-time because I was disabled, and that I did not have income from a part-time job.
Fortunately this was enough to secure a council tax exemption. My next step would have been contacting my local councillor and MP.
Postgraduates who have to study part-time due to illness or disability should not have to pay council tax, and the guidance on council websites should reflect this. In the meantime, it is worth remembering that appealing directly to your local council to inform them of your specific circumstances can secure an exemption. The official rules and wording do vary from council to council.
- Know your rights and the wording of the tax laws
- Prepare your case in advance, come armed with the facts
- Advocate for yourself, or ask someone to help you. The charity Shelter gives great free advice over the phone or online
- Don’t give up if your appeal is rejected on the first attempt
Shelter Housing Charity (free housing advice in England): https://england.shelter.org.uk/
UK government information on student council tax discounts: https://www.gov.uk/council-tax/discounts-for-full-time-students