Camden Council has had its case against a graduating postgraduate student thrown out by a Magistrate's Court, being told he was "obviously" a full-time student. The council had taken Matthew Yong to court for failing to pay his Council Tax, as College refuse to provide an exemption certificate to PhD students in the writing up phase of their PhD. Despite letters from Imperial College Union, a local conservative election candidate and Mr Yong's supervisors, Camden would not issue a discount without the certificate. Mr Yong chose to fight the council in court, as he firmly believed he fulfilled the definition of a full-time student in line with the "Council Tax (Discount Disregards) Order 1992". The council was effectively ordered to "go away" without the case being heard, with instructions to give Mr Yong the discount and pay his costs.
During the writing-up period at the end of a nominal three-year PhD, a student is not required to pay fees but has access to facilities and staff cut. The level of access available is a departmental lottery, with some departments making no restrictions while others shut their students out completely. The writing-up period is usually required to complete a PhD as three years is typically dedicated to experimental research, which places students in a state of limbo: they have not graduated and must work full-time writing up, so cannot get a job. However, the benefits associated with being a student are taken away by College's refusal to issue student exemption certificates, leading many to take on part-time work while writing up in order to pay their way - which until now has included council tax.
College's position is that as fees are not paid, the writing-up period does not constitute part of the course. They have also indicated it is a method of making PhD students "hurry up", as they will complete faster if they burn through their own money whilst writing up. Postgraduate representatives have countered this argument, as studies have shown students often have no choice but to get a job to tide them over, markedly slowing down their progress - three years of PhD funding cannot erase four years of accumulated student debt from an undergraduate degree, meaning many students have no reserves to see them through.
College's competitors in the PhD market - Oxford and Cambridge - all afford their writing-up students the same privileges as full-time students, including Council Tax exemption certificates.
In May, Imperial College Union will make a presentation College's Strategic Education Committee and call for better treatment of writing up students, including the issue of Council Tax. This case provides a strong argument in their favour, as does the large amount of academic support for the proposal. Last year's SEC saw London Weighting applied to all PhD funding.