4th Year PhD Students face uphill battle

IT’S an issue you probably don’t know about, but it will affect tens of thousands of postgraduate students in their future and was brought to my attention by Huw Diprose, Postgraduate Trustee. The problem with being a postgraduate student in your fourth year, often known as your writing up period, is that you are no longer a student. Well you are, but also you’re not. Confused? Don’t worry, so is everybody else… even the lawyers.

Essentially, after finishing your three years studying something game-changing, you have to write it up in one nice tidy thesis for the scholars of years to come to quote endlessly in awe of your brilliance. Some students go home for their writing up period. Some are working or teaching for the university at the time and some finish their thesis within their three years of academic study. As Kim Barker, President of the Postgraduate Association told me, “there is a common understanding amongst students – and staff – that using the 4th year is acceptable and even expected” even if it is not funded.

However, fourth year can cause a lot of hassle that will take away time from your thesis and invest it into endless exchanges of emails between yourself, various council members, landlords, university and guild staff and if you manage to get so worked up by getting nowhere, probably those lawyers.

The core problems are as follows: When a student finishes their funded third year of Ph.D study, they are no longer enrolled in study at their university and therefore do not qualify for the status of ‘student’. This in turn revokes their council tax exemption and their student privileges at their university, forcing them into private accommodation and keeping them from resources they need in order to finish their life-affirming research and forever take their place in the history books.

Ph.D. students stuck in this position “have enough to deal with in terms of finances, completing their theses and potentially juggling teaching commitments too”, says Kim Barker. “What they do not need is the stress of a council tax demand and a less than helpful student status.”

Students such as Henry Patton pay a little over £300 a year in order to access university resources in addition to council tax. Despite the 25% discount for living on his own, he’s struggling to live off what he has and it’s understandable to see why he and others like him are frustrated. Glesni Hemming, SACC Student Advisor, explained to me that you can’t even claim jobseekers allowance, because you are still studying, you’re just not a student…  does that make sense?

So it’s clear that this is an issue, and not one just affecting students here in Aberystwyth. The NUS has a web page devoted to the issue but their advice is simply to “seek advice from your students’ union or institution’s advice centre.” They do, however, bring up the crux of the issue: the definition of a “full-time student”, is a student who “attends for at least 24 weeks out of the year and participates in ‘study, tuition or work experience’ for at least 21 hours per week during term time.”

It’s the usage of the word ‘attend’ within this definition that has caused so much controversy and has been contested successfully by a Cambridge student in the case of R (Feller) v Cambridge City Council (March 2011), who argued that “for a person ‘to attend’ a course it does not require physical attendance at any particular place”. He subsequently won council tax exemption on the basis that he met all the other elements of the statutory definition of student. But it shouldn’t take a student from one of the most prestigious universities to bring this issue to the courts. It’s a problem that’s been left to the local government to sort out, but how are they supposed to define who is exempt when the law on who is a full time student doesn’t match up with the definitions of ‘studying’ or ‘attending’? There has been some effort to end the confusion, in the form of a government order in 2011 that changed the word ‘attend’ to ‘undertake”.

We cannot hope to define every term specifically. We’re learning all our lives and if I can count that as studying, I’m never paying my council tax. In reality, it has to be evaluated on a case by case basis, by people who understand the situation, not some civil servant on the end of a frustrated e-mail from yet another Ph.D student complaining that they are studying but not a student any more.

If I can do anything, it’s to bring the actual issue to the attention of the Ph.D. students, the University and the Council in an effort to make them work together. If you can explain your situation to your University, and that situation fulfils the quota of 24 weeks each year and 21 hours each week, I see no reason for the university to deny a certificate of student status.

  • Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelt Kim Barker’s surname on one occasion as “Parker”. We apologise for any confusion.