Benefits for Students in Scotland Handbook
Part 1: Benefits and tax credits
Chapter 4: Employment and support allowance
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Chapter 4: Employment and support allowance

This chapter covers:

1. What is employment and support allowance (below)

2. Who is eligible (Cross reference)

3. Limited capability for work (Cross reference)

4. Amount of benefit (Cross reference)

5. Claiming employment and support allowance (Cross reference)

6. Challenging a decision (Cross reference)

7. Other benefits and tax credits (Cross reference)

Basic facts

– Employment and support allowance (ESA) is for people who are assessed as having limited capability for work because of their health or disability.

– There is an income-related and a contributory ESA.

– Part-time students who have limited capability for work and full-time students who get disability living allowance or personal independence payment are eligible for income-related ESA.

– Part-time and full-time students can claim contributory ESA if they have paid sufficient national insurance contributions.


1. What is employment and support allowance

Employment and support allowance (ESA) is for people who have limited capability for work because of illness or disability.Footnote

There is a contributory and an income-related ESA. Contributory ESA is for people who have paid national insurance contributions. Income-related ESA is means tested and is for people whose income and capital are low enough. It is possible to receive one or both types of ESA.

Note: you cannot usually make a new claim for income-related ESA as it is in the process of being replaced by universal credit. However, an exception applies if you get, or got in the past month (and continue to satisfy the rules for it), a severe disability premium in your income-related ESA, income support, income-based jobseeker's allowance or housing benefit. 

2. Who is eligible

As new claims cannot usually be made for income-related employment and support allowance (ESA) (see above for exceptions), most students getting income-related ESA will be those who were already on this before starting the course, and who are eligible for income-related ESA as a student. If you cannot claim income-related ESA, you may be able to get universal credit instead (see Chapter 11).

To qualify for ESA, you must meet all the basic conditions.Footnote

You have limited capability for work (see Cross reference).

You are aged 16 or over and under pension age. You are in Great Britain (although some absences are allowed – see CPAG’s Welfare Benefits and Tax Credits Handbook for more details). You satisfy the rules for contributory ESA (see below) or income-related ESA (see Cross reference). You are not working, although some 'permitted work' is allowed. See CPAG’s Welfare Benefits and Tax Credits Handbook for more details.

Contributory employment and support allowance

Contributory ESA is not means tested. To qualify, you must meet the basic conditions on Cross reference and have paid sufficient national insurance  contributions.Footnote See CPAG’s Welfare Benefits and Tax Credits Handbook for details on this. There are no special rules for students. The same rules apply if you are taking time out from your course because of ill health (see Cross reference).

Income-related employment and support allowance

Income-related ESA is means tested. You are eligible if you are a part-time student and have limited capability for work. If you are a full-time student, you are only eligible if you get disability living allowance (DLA) or personal independence payment (PIP). The same rules apply if you are taking time out from your course because of ill health (see Cross reference).

To qualify for income-related ESA while studying, you must satisfy the basic conditions on Cross reference and all the following conditions.Footnote You are either a full-time student (see Cross reference) who is entitled to DLA (either component, paid at any rate – see Cross reference) or PIP (either component paid at any rate - see Cross reference), or you are a part-time student.Footnote  Your income is less than the set amount the law says you need to live on (known as your 'applicable amount’) – see Cross reference. You have no more than £16,000 capital. Your partner (if you have one) is not working 24 hours or more a week.

You are in Great Britain, satisfy the 'habitual residence’ and the 'right to reside’ tests, and are not a 'person subject to immigration control’. These terms are explained in CPAG’s Welfare Benefits and Tax Credits Handbook. Further advice is available from UKCISA (see Appendix 2).

Full-time student

You are a full-time student if you are:Footnote under 20 and a 'qualifying young person’ (see below); or 19 or over and a full-time student, unless you are aged 19 and count as being a qualifying young person (see Cross reference); or under 19 in full-time advanced education (see Cross reference).

Under 20 and a qualifying young person

You are a 'qualifying young person' if you are 19 or under and attending a full-time course of non-advanced education which you were accepted on, enrolled on or started when you were under 19. If you are accepted on, enrol on or start the course on or after your 19th birthday, you are not a qualifying young person (see below). 'Non-advanced education’ is anything below degree, Higher National Certificate or Higher National Diploma level and includes school-level courses. Your course is classed as 'full time’ for income-related ESA if it is for more than 12 hours a week during term time. These 12 hours include classes and supervised study, but not meal breaks or unsupervised study either at home or at college. You may count as a qualifying young person in a gap between courses or for a period after you have finished a course (see Cross reference).

19 or over and a full-time student

You count as a full-time student if you are undertaking a full-time course of study at an educational establishment. There are two definitions of 'full time’ that apply: the first covers mostly courses of advanced education; the second covers most courses of non-advanced education. Your course is full time if it is classed as full time by the institution. If the institution describes the course as full time, you need convincing evidence to persuade the DWP otherwise, bearing in mind that what matters is the course itself rather than the hours you attend. This definition covers all courses of advanced education and any courses of non-advanced education not funded in whole or in part by the Scottish government at a further education (FE) college. Your course is full time if it involves more than 16 hours a week classroom or workshop learning under the direct guidance of teaching staff, or 16 hours or less if your hours are made up of more than 21 hours a week of structured study hours. What matters is the number of hours specified in a document signed by the college. This is often called a 'learning agreement’, but your college may refer to it by some other name. This definition applies if you are at an FE college, not undertaking a higher education course, and your course is fully or partly funded by the Scottish government. Courses funded by the Scottish government include school qualifications like National Qualifications from Access level to Advanced Higher, Scottish Vocational Qualifications and National Certificates.

Under 19 in full-time advanced education

If you are under 19 and in full-time advanced education rather than in non-advanced education, the rules on when you count as full time are the same as for those aged 19 or over (see above).

3. Limited capability for work

One of the basic rules of entitlement to employment and support allowance (ESA) is that you must be assessed as having 'limited capability for work’. This means that your mental or physical condition makes it unreasonable to require you to work. You are normally assessed at a medical, known as the 'work capability assessment’. This also assesses whether you have 'limited capability for work-related activity’. If you are assessed as having both limited capability for work and limited capability for work-related activity, you are in the 'support group' and your ESA includes an amount called a 'support component'.

If you are assessed as only having limited capability for work, you are in the 'work-related activity group'. You are expected to attend work-focused interviews and may be required to undertake work-related activity. If you do not do so, your benefit may be reduced. If your claim began before 3 April 2017, your ESA includes a 'work-related activity component'. If it began on or after this date, it does not. 

If you are assessed as not having limited capability for work, you are not entitled to ESA. However, you can challenge this decision if you disagree with it (see Cross reference).

Most full-time students who get disability living allowance (DLA) or personal independence payment (PIP) and who are claiming income-related ESA are treated as having limited capability for work and do not have to satisfy this part of the test.Footnote However, you must still satisfy the test if:

you are a qualifying young person under 20; or

you are claiming contributory ESA.

All students, unless they are in the support group, must take part in work-focused interviews and may have to undertake work-related activity as a condition of getting full benefit.Footnote

If you are required to undertake full-time study as part of your work-related activity, you can continue to get ESA, whether or not you get DLA or PIP.Footnote 

Starting to study may prompt the DWP to call you for a reassessment, although this should not happen routinely. At the next assessment, your ability to perform the set activities is considered in the context of what you can do in a typical day, including your college or university routines. For example, you may be asked questions about your ability to get around campus, your ability to get to and from lectures, how long you can sit comfortably to study, or your ability to hold a pen to take notes or write essays.

The questions you are asked depend on which of the set activities (such as standing and sitting, manual dexterity and understanding communication) are relevant to your condition.

See CPAG's Welfare Benefits and Tax Credits Handbook for advice on medical examinations and what to do if you do not pass the assessment.



Rachel is 29 and getting contributory ESA that includes a support component. She starts a full-time course of study in August 2019. She continues to be eligible for contributory ESA, but is called for a medical reassessment. Her condition is still the same, she passes the assessment and her contributory ESA continues.


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