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Do I need to pay council tax?

Friday 4 March 2011Info and advice

Council tax is a tax applied to residential properties in England, Wales and Scotland (not Northern Ireland). It’s collected by local authorities to help fund their services. Some categories of property are exempt from paying the tax. In almost all cases, full-time students (as defined by the council tax regulations) don’t have to pay. Here are some details about council tax – make sure you’re not liable or paying it unnecessarily.

Exemptions from council tax

Council tax is applied to properties, not people, but exemptions from paying the tax are based on the sort of people who live in the property.

A property is exempt from council tax if everyone who lives there falls into at least one of several categories, including:

  • full-time college or university students
  • student nurses
  • 18 or 19-year olds in full-time education
  • children under 18 years old
  • people on apprentice schemes
  • people under 25 who get funding from the Skills Funding Agency or Education Funding Agency
  • a student’s overseas partner (if they entered the UK on a visa that denies the right to work or claim benefits, or if they have the right to work but not to claim benefits).

There are also other categories of exemption with less direct relevance to students. See the government’s full list of council tax exemptions. Student halls of residence are automatically exempt.

Who counts as a full-time student?

There’s a specific definition of 'full-time student' for council tax purposes. To count as a full-time student, your course must:

  • last at least one calendar or academic year, where you’re required to attend for at least 24 weeks out of the year
  • involve at least 21 hours of study, tuition or work experience per week during term time.

If you’re under 20 years old and you’re studying for a qualification up to A level, Advanced Higher, NVQ/SVQ level 3 or equivalent, your course must:

  • last at least three months
  • involve at least 12 hours of study per week.

You’re counted as a full-time student during the whole period of your course, from the first day until the last, including any vacation periods.

See the council tax guidelines for full-time students. If you get a council tax bill even though your household is exempt, you can apply for an exemption. If someone lives in your household who’s not a full-time student according to these criteria, you may get a bill. However, your household might still qualify for a discount because of the other exemption criteria. See What if my property is liable for council tax?

If you don’t meet these definitions of ‘full-time student’, you can’t claim exemption from council tax, even if your course is defined as ‘full-time’ by your university or college. You should seek help from the advice centre in your students’ union or institution if you’re uncertain.

Postgraduates

Full-time postgraduate students are regarded as full-time students for council tax purposes in the same way as other full-time higher education students.

Unfortunately, postgraduate research students sometimes find it difficult to secure their rightful council tax exemption. Some local authorities don’t believe their periods of study, tuition or work experience meet the requirements – often because the periods of study don’t take place on the university campus. However, the legislation explicitly states that study doesn’t need to be at the student's institution, and such refusals have been successfully challenged – notably in an appeal in Kent. (You can quote The Council Tax (Discount Disregards) Order 1992 at them if you have to.)

Other postgraduate students have had difficulty in securing exemption during the thesis ‘writing up’ period after the formal end of the course. While some local authorities are sympathetic and will extend your student status after the end of the course, others have been known to regard such students as liable. If this affects you, seek advice from your students’ union or institution’s advice centre.

Taking time out from your course

If you’re a full-time student you may need to suspend your studies for whatever reason (eg illness or caring for a relative). If you remain registered on your course because you intend to return, you should still count as a full-time student for council tax exemption purposes, because you remain within the period of the course.

Students between courses

If you’re moving from one course to another (eg you’ve completed an HND and are moving to top this up to an honours degree, or you’ve finished an undergraduate course and intend to start a postgraduate course in the following academic year) you don’t count for full-time student exemption for the time between the two courses. This is because you aren’t within the formal period of either course.

The exception to this is if you’re under 20 and have studied for a qualification up to A-level, Advanced Higher, NVQ/SVQ level 3 or equivalent. You retain your full-time student exemption status from 1 May until 31 October in the year you leave your course.

Proving exemption

You normally have to prove to your local authority that you’re a full-time student. You can do this with a certificate of student status provided by your university or college – they’re required by law to provide you with one up to a year after you complete your course. Contact your student services or central administration department to find out how to apply for a certificate.

If you’re in a shared flat, all of the full-time students have to prove exemption. Those who don’t are deemed liable for the council tax bill.

What if my property is liable for council tax?

If your property isn’t exempt, the council tax must be paid. The amount of council tax applied to properties depends on several bands of charges based on property values in 1991 (2005 in Wales). 

The person responsible for paying the bill is usually the person living in the property who has the most interest in that property (eg the owner or person named on the tenancy agreement). If more than one person has equal interest, the liability is jointly and severally shared. However, full-time students are also exempted from liability in this situation.

A property would be liable if, for example, three adults lived there, two of whom were full-time students and one of whom wasn’t. Only the person who isn’t a full-time student is liable to pay the tax.

When there’s only one liable person in the property (as in the example above) they can apply for a 25 per cent discount on the bill, and if their income is low enough they may be able to receive council tax benefit.

The one situation in which a full-time student can be liable is when they have a higher interest in the property but share it with someone who isn’t a student. For example, if you own your property and are a full-time student, but sublet a room to a non-student, the property becomes liable, and because you have the higher interest you’re the liable person.

Again, if you’re the only liable person in such a property, you can apply for a 25 per cent discount on the bill, and in some circumstances you may be entitled to council tax benefit. Contact an advice centre at your students’ union or institution for their guidance.

NUS provides this information in good faith and has taken care to make sure it’s accurate. However, student finance issues can be complicated, and rules change frequently. You should contact the advice centre in your students' union, college or university for support if you’re uncertain or need more help.