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Employment Support Allowance (ESA)

Employment Support Allowance (ESA)

Employment Support Allowance is a benefit paid if your ability to work is limited by ill health or disability.

Although most full-time students are not eligible to claim ESA, there are exceptions for some students with disabilities or ongoing ill health.

If you want to claim ESA we suggest you contact a Welfare Adviser in the Advice and Counselling Service first. 

Eligibility criteria for ESA

You may be entitled to ESA if you are found to have a limited capability for work. This means that because of your mental or physical condition it is unreasonable to require you to work. This is tested by the ‘work capability assessment’ (WCA). This test has two parts:

Part one tests whether your capability for work is limited by your physical or mental condition and, if so, whether the limitation is severe enough that it is not reasonable to require you to work.

This looks at physical activities such as mobilising, standing, sitting, picking things up, making yourself understood, understanding communication, navigation, maintaining safety, consciousness and absence of control of bladder and bowel. Mental activities are also considered such as the ability to learn simple tasks, awareness of everyday hazards, initiating personal action, coping with change, getting about, social engagement and appropriateness of behaviour with other people.

If you score sufficient points in the difficulties you have doing the above tasks your limited capability for work is determined.

Part two of the WCA considers whether you have ‘a limited capability for work related activity’. This determines whether you are placed in the support group or the work related activity group. Which group you are placed in affects the amount of ESA you can receive and the responsibilities you must meet to retain the benefit. Those in the work related activity group are required to carry out certain activities while those in the support group are not.

The work capability assessment should take place within 13 weeks following your claim. 

There are two types of ESA:

1. Contributory based ESA – ESA (C)

To be eligible you will have to have paid enough National Insurance (NI) contributions, usually you have to have been working and paying NI in the past 2-3 years to qualify.

If you qualify for ESA(C) you do not need to be getting DLA or PIP in order to claim while a full time student. It is not means-tested and it is not affected by Student Finance. You can claim after 3 days of ill health. You must continue to satisfy the medical test for limited capability for work. Starting a course of study may trigger the DWP to ask you to undergo a medical reassessment. ESA(C) is time limited to 12 months for most people, except the most severely disabled. After 12 months you may be able to move onto ESA (IR).

2. Income Related ESA, ESA (IR)

Full time students need to be in receipt of DLA or PIP to qualify for ESA (IR). You are still counted as a full time student if you are out of attendance but have not completed your course. In Higher Education you are full time if the university says the course is full time irrespective of the number of contact hours. ESA (IR) is means tested so your Student Finance will affect the amount you receive. 

How do I claim ESA?

Applications should be made by phone to Jobcentre Plus (JCP) on freephone 0800 055 6688.


You will need to have the necessary information ready to give on the phone: this includes your NI number, your GP’s contact details, any other benefit reference numbers, your bank details, and your weekly rent figure. The call will take about 30 minutes. They will go through the initial claim form with you and arrange to send out a statement for you to check. They will ask you to send in a medical certificate called a ‘fit note’ from your doctor. This is a certificate which confirms you have limited capability for work due to a disability or medical condition.

You can also apply online then print the ESA1 form and post it. This may be easier but will delay the date of claim to the date your form is received. The ESA1 form is available at

If the DWP decide you are eligible you will then start a 13 week assessment phase (during this phase a basic allowance is paid, linked to age). During these 13 weeks JCP will normally carry out a work capability assessment and you will usually be asked to fill out an ESA50 ‘limited capability for work questionnaire’. You may be asked to attend a medical examination and a face to face meeting.

You may be required to undertake work related activities to continue to claim and you will be given a personal action plan which you will need to follow. 

What happens if my ESA claim is refused?

If your claim is refused you can request a mandatory reconsideration and then an appeal. More information is available at

Contact a Welfare Adviser if you are experiencing problems with your claim. We can normally advise you on how to demonstrate that studying is different from work and on what supporting documents you will need.

If you do not qualify for ESA but you are taking time out of your course and are waiting to return having taken approved time out because of an illness and you have now recovered you may be able to claim JSA and HB instead.

More information

Law, regulations and policies can change quickly. The information on our website is given in good faith and has been carefully checked but QMUL cannot accept responsibility for any errors or omissions. QMUL is not responsible for the content or reliability of the linked websites which are provided for further information.

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