In his first speech since taking over from Mark Harper, Immigration Minister James Brokenshire has indicated that further restrictions for Tier 4 sponsors could be on the horizon.
Speaking at the Demos think-tank on 6 March, the Minster indicated that the current visa refusal rate of 20% for HTS purposes could be reduced to 10%. The Minster confirmed that he is aware that this could see significant numbers of Tier 4 sponsors, including universities and independent schools, lose their ability to sponsor international students.
The 20% rule
Currently, if 20% or more of the students who have been issued with a Confirmation for Acceptance of Studies (‘CAS’) by a Tier 4 sponsor have their visa applications refused, this can trigger a decision by UKVI to revoke the sponsor licence of the institution. If its licence is revoked then, under the current rules, the institution must wait for at least 6 months before making a fresh application for a licence and must wait a further 12 months before they can secure HTS status.
The institution must stop sponsoring students immediately upon receipt of a decision to revoke and this, naturally, causes serious distress and disruption to those individuals. The revocation can also lead to reputational damage and financial distress for the institution and panic amongst non-sponsored students.
This firm regularly advises universities, English language providers and other Tier 4 sponsors on this area of law and we are seeing a recent and dramatic increase in licence revocations due to visa refusal rates.
We have analysed numerous visa refusal notices that clearly demonstrate that applications are often refused due to reasons that are entirely outside the control of the sponsor, and are often outside the control of the student.
We have also reviewed questions asked in student interviews by immigration officials where the official has concluded, without any reasonable grounds to do so, that the student does not possess a genuine intention to study in the UK. We have also seen numerous refusals where errors have been made by the immigration official or where, for instance, a fluctuation in exchange rates has meant that a student who qualified under the rules at the time they submitted their application in fact no longer qualified when the application was considered and could do nothing to prevent a refusal.
The government’s initiative to attract international students
The Minster’s statements appear to contradict the government’s initiative to attract more international students to the UK announced less than a year ago. If the UK government starts to revoke the sponsor licences of significant numbers of UK education providers, then this is going to concern the very same genuine students whom the government has claimed it wishes to attract. Many students may decide to pursue their studies elsewhere.
It is extremely important that the government reconsiders its position, places the UK’s international reputation at the heart of its immigration policy and focuses on measures that will lead to greater certainty and stability for education providers and international students alike.
Action for HTS sponsors
In light of the extremely concerning statements made by the Minister, we recommend that all Tier 4 sponsors carry out an urgent review of:
- their current visa refusal rates;
- the reasons for those refusals;
- the information they provide to students who are due to make an application for a visa under Tier 4.
We recommend that, in particular, institutions provide students with simple and clear information on the financial requirements for obtaining a visa as this is one of the key triggers for visa refusals. Given the overall complexity of the Tier 4 application process, it can be hard for an applicant to understand the importance of full compliance with the evidential requirements.
In relation to credibility interviews, sponsors should not coach individual students who are called for interviews, but we do recommend that they provide clear general information on the interview process so that students who are called for an interview can be prepared.
We also advise sponsors to strongly urge students to seek an Administrative Review of a decision to refuse rather than issuing a new CAS. This is because the refusal will count towards the visa refusal rate for HTS purposes regardless of whether or not the subsequent application is successful.
Sponsors should also carefully analyse the reasons for refusals and implement targeted measures aimed at reducing them. For instance, if the majority of students are being refused due to financial issues, the sponsor should target its resources at providing better information to students before they make their applications.
Providing advice and assistance to sponsored students
Sponsors should also consider offering an application checking service for students to ensure that applications and supporting evidence meet the requirements. Sponsors are exempt from having to be OISC registered and can provide advice and assistance as long as it is:
- provided free of charge by the licensed sponsor or an employee of the licensed sponsor; and
- restricted to matters relating to a sponsored migrant’s application under Tier 2 or Tier 4 or to an application for entry clearance, leave to enter or leave to remain made by the migrant’s immediate family and which is dependent on the migrant’s application under Tier 2 or Tier 4.
Further details on the rules concerning the help sponsors can give can be found here.
We will be monitoring this situation closely and will provide updates on our website. In the meantime, if your institution holds a Tier 4 sponsor and you require advice on measures you may be able to take to reduce the number of refusals of applications made by your students or you receive a notice of intention to revoke your licence and require legal advice, please contact us.