VAT: Latest from the courts – extent of education exemption

By   August 7, 2017

In the case of SAE Education Ltd (SAE) at the Court of Appeal, the court was required to decide on whether the exemption for education services extended to a “Special Associate College”.

Background

At the relevant time here was relationship between SAE and Middlesex University which has existed since 1998 when the first Memorandum of Co-operation was signed.  This was a contractual document which provided for certain BA courses to be taught by SAE at specified campuses as “validated collaborative programs” of the university. Subsequently the university and SAE entered into further Memoranda of Co-operation which replaced the earlier agreement and provided for the validation of additional courses. Tuition was provided by SAE subject to quality assurance safeguards. SAE provided library, computer and other facilities but SAE students would not normally be entitled to access or use of the university’s Learning and Resource Services unless negotiated at extra cost. Nor were they to be entitled to access university’s accommodation and other social welfare services or to apply for financial support from the University’s Access to Learning Fund. They were however, entitled to access the university’s Disability Support Services but again at an additional cost.

In 2010 a decision by the university to grant SAE accredited status was made. This meant that SAE was accredited to validate, monitor and review courses of study leading to university undergraduate awards in certain subjects. This gave SAE the ability to validate the specified programmes itself (although Middlesex University staff continued to be involved in the assessment of the programmes).

The issue

SAE claimed that its supplies were exempt on the basis that it was a college of Middlesex University and therefore an “eligible body” (see below) and that the services supplied were educational as the university outsourced certain courses to it.

HMRC disagreed and assessed for output tax on the appellant’s services on the basis that exemption did not apply and the supplies were standard rated.

Legislation

The relevant legislation: VAT Act 1994, Schedule 9, Group 6, item 1 insists that in order for exemption to apply the provision of education (inter alia) must be by an “eligible body”. The matter to be considered therefore was; is SAE Education Ltd an eligible body. An “Eligible body” is defined in Note (1). It includes a long list of different types of school and higher education establishments but the appeal concerned paragraph (b): “a United Kingdom university, and any college, institution, school or hall of such a university;”

Decision

So was the appellant a UK university, college, instruction, school or hall of such a university?  The judges concluded that it was not.

It was decided that although Middlesex University outsourced certain courses to it, and that SAE  was appointed as a Special Associate College,  this fell short of making it a college in a constitutional or structural sense. In their view a college means entities which are a constituent part of an university. The example given was of Cambridge and Oxford colleges which have been organised for centuries on a federal system under which the colleges and private halls, although legally independent and self-governing, have provided the students of the university and have assumed the primary responsibility for their tuition. The universities themselves are corporations and are regulated by statute with their own separate legal identity and status. “The colleges and private halls are therefore an integral part of the structure of the university and their members make up the university’s teaching staff and students.”

Commentary

It would appear that as a result of the approach in this case, the exemption for education may be more restrictive than previously understood. It is vital that providers of education review their VAT status as soon as possible.  I would advise that a VAT consultant is used because this is an area where small details may affect the VAT treatment of the services. The ruling in this case is not helpful.

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