Many education providers are exploring exciting growth initiatives and these often include ideas on new course offerings aimed at attracting international students. Whilst there may be significant benefits in offering new and unique courses, it is vital to ensure that they comply with the fairly strict requirements set out the Sponsor Guidance.
In this update we consider the different types of courses, including pre-sessionals, that can be offered to international students. Where we refer to the Sponsor Guidance, we are referring to version 10/13. Please note that this article is correct at the time of writing (November 2013). However, the Home Office changes the rules relating to Tier 4 frequently and you should therefore always check the latest guidance.
Tier 4 (General) or Tier 4 (Child)
One of the questions we are asked to provide legal guidance on most often is whether or not a particular course can be offered to international students under one of the Tier 4 categories.
It’s extremely important for sponsors to get this right. If a sponsored student is enrolled on a main course of study that does meet the requirements contained in the Sponsor Guidance, this can of itself put the sponsor’s licence at risk and ruin the student’s study experience in the UK.
Students who are aged 18 or older can only be sponsored under Tier 4 (General).
Where a student is aged 15 or under they can only be sponsored under Tier 4 (Child) and the sponsor must be an independent fee paying school.
International students aged 16 or 17 who are coming to the UK in order to study a course at QCF level 3 (for example A-levels) can be sponsored either under Tier 4 (Child) or under Tier 4 (General).
A student who is 16 or 17 but who will study QCF level 2 (for example GCSEs) can only apply as a Tier 4 (Child) student.
QCF stands for the Qualifications and Credit Framework, which is the national credit transfer system for education qualifications in England, Northern Ireland and Wales. Scotland has its own system, the Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework (SCQF). The QCF has replaced the National Qualifications Framework (NQF) and any student starting a qualification from September 2011 will complete it under QCF. Students who started a qualification under NQF will complete them. In this guide, we will refer to QCF only.
Tier 4 General
Type of course
The rules relating to the type of courses that can be offered under Tier 4 (General) can be found from paragraph 347 onwards in the Sponsor Guidance.
In general sponsors can only assign a CAS under Tier 4 (General) for courses that are at a minimum level of:
- QCF level 3 (or the equivalent in Scotland), or
- Level B2 of the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) for English language students (although an exception may apply if a student is in the UK with permission that was applied for before 5 October 2009).
A sponsor that holds an A-rated sponsor licence cannot teach international students at QCF level 3.
In addition to the above requirements, the main course of study must also be:
- a full-time course that leads to a UK-recognised qualification at level 6 or above on the QCF. The Home Office does not define ‘full-time’ in relation to degree level studies and this is left to the awarding institution to determine. A bachelors degree where there are only 8 hours of classroom based study a week would meet the requirements; or
- an overseas higher education course that:
i. the student is studying for in the UK; and
ii. leads to a qualification from an overseas higher education institution that is recognised as being equivalent to a UK higher education qualification; or
- a course of study below UK degree level that involves a minimum of 15 hours a week of classroom-based, daytime study (08:00 – 18:00, Monday to Friday). An A-level or English language course, for instance, where the student is studying less than 15 hours a week in the classroom would not meet the criteria.
Finally courses offered under Tier 4 (General) must meet the Home Office’s definition of being an ‘approved qualification’.
Courses must therefore be:
- awarded or validated by an institution that has been granted degree awarding powers by a Royal Charter, an Act of Parliament or the Privy Council. These are known as ‘recognised bodies’ and include all UK universities and some higher education colleges; or
- recognised by one or more recognised body through a formal articulation agreement with the awarding body; or
- on the Register of Regulated Qualifications at QCF level 3 or above (English, Wales and Northern Ireland) or accredited at level 6 or above in the (SCQF) by the Scottish Qualifications Authority; or
- an overseas qualification that UK NARIC can assess as valid and equivalent to level 3 or above on the QCF (or equivalents); or
- covered by a formal legal agreement between a UK-recognised body and another education provider or awarding body that:
i. is signed by an authorised signatory for institutional agreements within the recognised body, and
ii. confirms the recognised body’s own independent assessment of the level of the programme compared to the QCF (or its equivalents), and
iii. states that the recognised body would admit any student who successfully completes the named course onto a specific or a range of degree-level courses it offers; or
- acceptable English language tuition.
Distance learning courses are not approved courses under Tier 4 and pre-sessional courses must meet the requirements contained in paragraphs 434 and 435 .
In addition Tier 4 (General) can be used to sponsor postgraduate doctors and dentists and Doctorate Extension Scheme students. Further information about both of those categories can be found in the Sponsor Guidance.
Tier 4 (Child)
Sponsors that will be teaching international students who are aged under 18 must ensure that suitable care arrangements are in place. Further information about this requirement can be found at paragraph 404 onwards of the Sponsor Guidance.
Type of course
Students who are aged between 4 and 15 and who are sponsored under Tier 4 (Child) must be educated at an independent fee-paying school.
Those who are aged 16 or 17 can attend a private college, for example, providing the requirements in relation to care are complied with. On the whole sponsors tend not to find it particularly difficult to comply with the care requirements relating to students who are 16 and 17 years old because they are permitted under UK law to live ‘independently’.
Students who are sponsored under Tier 4 (Child) must be studying a main course that is:
a. taught in line with the National Curriculum; or
b. taught in line with the QCF; or
c. accepted as being of equivalent academic status by Ofsted (England), or the appropriate bodies in the devolved regions, including the Education and Training Inspectorate (Northern Ireland), Education Scotland (Scotland) and Estyn (Wales); or
d. taught in line with the prevailing inspection standards for independent school education.
Minimum hours of study are not imposed in relation to the Tier 4 (Child) category.
English language courses cannot be offered as the main course of study to students aged 15 or under who are sponsored under Tier 4 (Child). They can however be offered as supplementary or pre-sessional study. A student sponsored under Tier 4 (Child) could, for instance, study GCSEs or A-Levels as their main course of study and an English language course in addition.
Child students can use the Child Visitor route where English will be the main course of study.
Pre-sessional courses must meet the requirements of Tier 4 but the course does not have to lead to a recognised qualification. In paragraphs 434 and 435 of the current version of the Sponsor Guidance, the Home Office defines a pre-sessional course as one “that prepares a student for, and directly precedes, their intended full-time course of study in the UK and enables them to acquire the ancillary skills or knowledge necessary to adjust to study in the UK”.
Pre-sessional courses under Tier 4 are not restricted to English language and can cover other topics. However, courses that are designed to give a student fundamental training in a subject as a stepping stone to further or higher education – for instance a Foundation degree – or courses which form an integral part of the main course of study or replace part of it will not be considered as pre-sessional study.
Students who are sponsored under Tier 4 (Child) or Tier 4 (General) are not restricted from studying additional courses (including with other education providers) providing the additional studies do not interfere with the main course of study.
There is currently a great deal of confusion surrounding the rules on supplementary study and whether or not additional courses can commence before or after the main course begins. The Home Office could have provided detail in the Sponsor Guidance but choose not done to. It is unlikely that interpretations of the requirements that are not expressly set out in the guidance documents or Immigration Rules would be held to be lawful if examined by a court.
The Higher Education Assurance Team
The Home Office is currently sending its Higher Education Assurance Team (“HEAT”) out to visit higher education sponsors and the courses that are offered by the sponsor is one of the key areas that is checked. The team is also checking websites of education providers to ensure the courses on offer meet the rules.
So far, only a small number of visits have been carried out and we have been working with clients to ensure that they are prepared. In addition to checking course offerings and other key compliance areas, sponsors can expect the HEAT team to check around 20% of Tier 4 student files. Bernard Evans confirmed at this week’s NARIC conference that this is to strengthen any defence the Home Office may need to mount if there is a challenge by way of judicial review.
If you would like any advice or assistance, please contact us.
Nichola Carter will be speaking at the Westminster Higher Education Forum on Exporting UK education on 5 December 2013.