Victory for Grads in war on tax injustice

Jane Ashford-Thorn - News Reporter 29 October 2009

Fourth year PhD students have won a hard-fought campaign against Cambridge City Council, who sought to charge them over £900 per house in council tax.

Although taxation of PhD students has been prohibited by courts in the past, the Council sent a series of letters to graduates this year, prompting campaigning through the student unions and social networking websites.

University officials, members of the Grad Union and members of CUSU are understood to have been in high profile negotiations with the Council. A letter-writing campaign to David Howarth MP inspired him to raise the issue with the head of HM Customs and Benefits, John Frost. It is also understood that students went to an October 22nd open council meeting in force to express their views.

The confusion over the tax status of fourth year PhD students derived from disagreement as to whether the ‘write up’ stage of the doctorate amounts to full-time education. Eleanor Green of the Faculty of Earth Studies commented: “it seems grossly unfair if writing up doesn’t count as part of the PhD, given that one can’t get the degree without doing it.”

A key point of dispute concerned the Cambridge City Council’s definition of a student as “attending a university or college course that lasts an academic year or more, for a minimum of 24 weeks a year and 21 hours a week.” The Council argued that the work of a fourth year PhD student does not amount to this.

There was also confusion over whether university lodgings are even applicable for taxation, as university owned halls of residence are qualified as being exempt according to official documentation.

The Graduate Union’s official advice is that those concerned should present a certificate from the University to the Council, proving their official status as students.

However, one student, commenting on the issue as reported on the blog, insisted: “I have taken – in person – letters from my supervisor, Head of Department and College to the council explaining my status as a research student, all of which have been rejected.” It is understood that the Council will now be accepting such certificates.

King’s College students were advised to pay the tax in the probability that it would be repaid following negotiations, and in order to avoid receiving summons. More radical suggestions included applying for benefits to secure exemptions.

However, former CUSU welfare officer Andrea Walko has criticised the student unions for a lack of clear communication, since those affected have been in a continuous state of uncertainty over whether or not they still have to pay.

In a statement to The Cambridge Student (TCS), she said: “the unions need to communicate the behind-the-scenes work they spend so much time on to the rest of the student population, otherwise students just think nothing is being done.”

Though negotiations have been taking place, and external groups have been advising students on how to react to the shock taxation, the Grad Union website has not had any updates on the issue since the 15th October. Neither the President of the Graduate Union nor the Financial Office for graduates were available for comment.

Students are now advised to call the Council if any more invoices are received, and to seek a refund if they have already paid the tax.

The founder of the Facebook campaign group, Tim Conway, gave his reaction to TCS: “I’m very pleased that the council has decided to extend exemption to include four years of study, which seems a fair policy that will allow students to complete their course without added financial pressure.”

Jane Ashford-Thorn – News Reporter