Tuesday 21-02-2017 - 14:00
Until very recently, some of Aberystwyth’s undergrads and postgrads were not able to claim council tax exemption because they weren’t regarded as full time students. Here, award winning student adviser Eri Mountbatten and President, Lauren Marks, tell us how Aberystwyth University Students’ Union Advice services worked alongside elected Officers and others to campaign to get this ruling changed.
Tell us about the issue at Aberyswyth?
Advice services will be aware that students and council tax is a tricky area of law. Not least because the way that the regulations are applied varies hugely between universities as well as local authorities, who, under statute, both have a part to play in how students secure exemption.
Under normal circumstances, i.e. for full time undergraduate students, these matters are fairly simple. However, the issues lay when grey areas or complex circumstances apply. For example, such circumstances include undergraduate students taking time out from study or re-taking exams… or postgraduate students during write-up undertaking PhDs.
The issues here in Aber were that although some PhD candidates (working a certain amount of hours on their thesis) had secured support from the university for exemption, this was not extended to MPhil students or, broadly speaking, other complex groups.
There were three underlying reasons for this policy being interpreted as it was in Aber which amounted to a ‘perfect storm’ for misinterpretation and misapplication of the council tax regulations:
- Firstly, at that point in time, the university were under the misguided assumptions that students needed to be in attendance or study for a certain number of hours per week as individuals in order for them to be deemed a ‘full time student’. This was because the university conflated the statutory interpretations of a ‘full time course’ (Schedule 1, Part II, para 4) with that of a ‘full time student’ (Schedule 1, Part II, para 3);
- The other crucial factor was that the university was in part using its own prescriptive regulations and definitions of a ‘full time student’ (which required students to be formally ‘registered’ as a fee paying student in receipt of services and in attendance etc.) as opposed to applying the definitions set out in statute (cf Schedule 1, Part II, para 3) which are fairly broad;
- Lastly, the local council who is the competent ‘billing authority’ and decision-maker under the Local Government Finance Act 1992 (as amended), had a practice of giving full discretion to the university to make decisions on exemption. This placed inordinate pressure on university administrative staff to get it right even though they might not always have the appropriate level of legal expertise or support.
How did you first hear about it? Was it something which those students affected by it were fully aware of?
The issue presented itself via a group of MPhil students who came in to the Advice service because they were being charged for council tax during their write-up period and quite rightly felt it unfair that they were being treated differently to most PhD students.
How did you go about lobbying your university to revise its regulations?
In my experience, it’s always best to deal with challenging matters at the most informal level possible before escalating issues up; but sometimes it’s worth a shot. Elected Officers had tried discussing the matter with the University through the committee structures but as this matter was seen as dealt with in 2013 this was initially pushed-back. We clearly needed a more compelling tactic to persuade the University to take us seriously; so we used the law!
Here in Aber we have developed a specialist technique which is mostly used by solicitors in strategic legal casework challenges in order to secure caselaw precedent. In my experience it is rarely seen in Union advice or other generalist level advice services.
In this particular case, I used the grievance of those two MPhil students in order to challenge the University on their policy. To accompany the challenge letter, both NUS and NASMA kindly offered supporting letters. This really helped to add pressure and raise the profile of the issue to help ensure that the matter would be given attention and priority. I then worked closely with elected Sabbatical Officers to negotiate with key University staff for this policy to be revised. Once guidelines were agreed it then had to run through the internal committee structures for an additional layer of oversight and final approval. This is a great example of Union and national membership organisations working together to successfully lobby an individual University for improvements for the wider student body.
Were there any particular stakeholders from the university who you targeted?
Locally, it is our registry office staff who issues certificates/ letters in support of exemption, so using the case of the MPhil students, I drafted a challenge letter outlining the law and the case for these students in depth; I also sought legal; opinion on the merits of the case (which backed the central arguments up well). This then went through the Assistant Registrar who then escalated matters internally to both his manager as well as the relevant Pro Vice Chancellors. Having sight of the policy challenge letter in hand, this then triggered the university to seek legal advice themselves. The advice that they received almost fully supported the claims made in the challenge letter. The case was effectively won and it was a matter of negotiating on the detail of implementation.
Which students will mostly benefit from these changes?
Once the legal inconsistencies were cleared up, exemption for full time registered students is fairly straightforward; so this policy revision will help everyone else who remains in study (or is taking temporary leave) and who may otherwise have fallen foul of the older rules in Aber. Such students include some PhD candidates who may have been deemed not to meet the ‘hours’ rule previously; all MPhil candidates in write-up period; all undergraduate students taking time out from study, re-siting exams (as either internal or external candidates), and even students moving from Foundation into undergraduate studies have recently benefited from this fresh look at the law.
How much money will students save as a result and how important are these savings more broadly for your members?
The average council bill in the Aberystwyth area is £1000 per year. In terms of full time registered students, Aberystwyth has approximately 8,000 (broadly split as 90% undergraduate students and 10% postgraduate students at various stages of write-up). In the academic year 2015-16, of those broad figures, students likely to have directly benefited include: about 90 students moving from Foundation to undergraduate degree; about 120 going through temporary withdrawal; about 430 postgraduates in their write-up period; and about 900 students re-siting modules. Therefore, for at least the student-groups identified above (almost 20% of the student body in Aber) it will save them approximately £90 pm in living costs during their respective periods. That’s not a bad outcome at all.
What advice would you give to fellow students’ unions who are also campaigning for similar changes for their students?
At the early stages this win was simply strategic casework that worked! Therefore, the secret to the success of this campaign was first and foremost, capacity to deliver specialist level advice and casework. Building capacity for advisers actually makes sense because it cuts out the potential for these issues being lost in a plethora of competing campaign priorities and uses a more direct form of action. Therefore, if you can, work to develop your advice staff in your union with experience and training to help them to have a go at dealing with complex legal cases.
If your advice service is a member of AdviceUK it may also be useful to know that you have free access to second tier support and commercial legal advice. I cannot emphasize enough how this can help give you the confidence to challenge the university when dealing with complex legal cases; I know it helped me!
This approach will not suit all advice services or union cultures; so in that case, perhaps look to build this capacity within other departments (like representation or campaigns) or within Officer Teams themselves. However, do bear in mind that in cases like these, in addition to skills and capacity of staff, you will also need strong communication lines between your Advice services, Officers and your Voice departments.
Whichever route you take it is then vital that such wins are communicated to the student body so that they are aware of policy, good practice, what support is available to them and how they can engage with union support to help make positive change.
A final word from Lauren Marks, President at Aberystwyth University Students Union:
I first heard about the problem with Council Tax inconsistencies when it was raised through our Advice Service by students, and it was fed back to the Officer Team by our Adviser. This is an inconsistency in university procedure which was leaving some students at a disadvantage, so was something that the Officer Team wanted to work with our Advice Service on rectifying.
The crucial feature of the success of this campaign in Aber was the close working relationship between advice staff and elected Officers, and the way that we approached the university. This campaign was partially individual (as a lot of advice-based research and knowledge was needed) and partially collective (when the student voice needed to be represented at different levels within the university), which was why we needed both arms of the union to be most effective. We as Officers were particularly effective once the challenge letter had been broadly accepted by the university and we were in the realm of policy negotiation where it was the Officers who were crucial in representing the voice of students more widely.
I’d personally suggest that unions look at how to best recognise the interplay between individual and collective voice and the importance of both formal and informal systems between advice, Officers, representation and campaigns. We needed to utilise expertise from our Advisers, but also needed a strong student voice to help push the change through. When it works well, these systems can help foster healthy working relationships, but crucially, a student voice culture within your union that is maximised for impact.
You can find more about Aberystwyth University Students’ Union’s advice service at www.abersu.co.uk/advice.