On 13 July 2015, the Government announced by way of Written Statement (HCWS95) and Statement of Changes in Immigration Rules (HC297) a number of significant, and many in the education sector will argue negative, changes to the student visa system. Here we review the key changes.
As from 14 July 2014, Tier 4 applicants applying from overseas can request that their visas are issued in line with their intended date of travel. This is designed to assist with new system whereby overseas applicants are granted a 30 day visa and must then collect a Biometric Residence Card upon arrival in the UK.
On 3 August 2015 work rights for international students sponsored by public colleges will be removed in respect of new applications. At the moment such students are permitted to work for up to 10 hours a week. (International students sponsored by universities are permitted to work for up to 20 hours per week and this is not changing. International students sponsored by private colleges have been unable to work since 2011).
Additionally as from 3 August 2015, sponsors will not be required to confirm that a course meets the ‘academic progression’ rules set out in paragraph 120A(a) of Immigration Rules Appendix A in cases where the applicant is:
- re-sitting examinations or repeating modules in accordance with paragraph 119 of Appendix A of the Immigration Rules (this is unchanged); or
- applying for further leave under Tier 4 (General) to complete a PhD or other doctoral qualification; or
- making a first application to move to a new institution to complete a course commenced at a Tier 4 sponsor that has had its licence revoked (at the moment this exception applies where the applicant will make a first application to move to a new institution to complete a course commenced elsewhere).
In all other cases, the course will need to represent academic progression from previous study unless the course is taught by a UK recognised body or body in receipt of public funding as an HEI that holds Tier 4 sponsor status and the sponsor confirms that:
(1) the course is related to the previous course for which the applicant was granted leave as a Tier 4 (General) Student, meaning that it is either connected to the previous course, part of the same subject group, or involves deeper specialisation; or
(2) the previous course and the new course in combination support the applicant’s genuine career aspirations.
These new requirements will require the sponsor to conduct a much more detailed level of scrutiny.
Further changes to Tier 4, which will take effect on 3 August 2015 or 12 November 2015, include:
3 August 2015
- ensuring that all time spent in the UK with leave under Tier 4 counts towards the time limits (this includes time spent before the course has started and/or after it has ended);
- the removal of the ability of those with leave to remain under Tier 4 (Child) to study a foundation course and ‘clarification’ that Tier 4 (Child) students cannot study at Academies or schools maintained by a local authority. The overall effect of the changes means that only Independent Schools can be sponsors under Tier 4 (Child).
12 November 2015
- a change in the maximum time Tier 4 (General) students can study courses that are below degree level from 3 years to 2 years;
- new rules to prevent Tier 4 (General) students from making an application from inside the UK for further leave to remain under Tier 4 (General) unless they are, or were last, sponsored by (i) a UK recognised body or a body in receipt of funding as an HEI, or (ii) an overseas HEI to undertake a short-term study abroad programme in the UK, or (iii) an Embedded College offering Pathway Courses as defined in the Rules. All other Tier 4 (General) students will need to leave the UK and apply for leave to enter from overseas before being able to return in order to study further under Tier 4 (General);
- new measures to restrict the ability to switch inside the UK from Tier 4 (General) to Tier 1 (Entrepreneur) or Tier 1 (Investor) to predominantly university students and those studying at an Embedded College offering Pathway Courses;
- new measures to restrict the ability to switch inside the UK from Tier 4 (General) to Tier 1 (Graduate Entrepreneur), Tier 2 (General) or Tier 5 to predominantly university students;
- an increase in the maintenance and accommodation offset requirements and an expansion of ‘the London area’ in which the maintenance level is higher;
- applying the same maintenance requirements to all Tier 4 (General) students, regardless of whether or not they are living in the UK, with the exception of those on the Doctorate Extension Scheme;
- the removal of the ‘established presence’ rule that allows some students to show only two months’ maintenance evidence.
The Minister has once again stated that changes to the student visa system are needed not only to reduce net migration but also to stem ‘abuse’. The Government has been criticised in the past for providing seemingly weak evidence in support of changes made to the student visa system. On this occasion such criticism is likely to be widespread.
These changes are significant and Tier 4 sponsors are strongly advised to spend time ensuring that the implications are understood in detail.
We continue to spend the majority of our time working with Tier 4 sponsors to ensure that they remain able to cope with the continuous challenges that are inherent in retaining a sponsor licence. Recent work includes:
- advising sponsors on measures they can take to maintain a refusal rate of less than 10%;
- making changes to strengthen the admissions criteria for both in county and out of country applicants including designing interview questionnaires to ensure that important areas are covered at the initial assessment stage such as career aspirations, prior relevant study and experience, UK immigration history (where relevant), financial circumstances, etc;
- undertaking targeted compliance reviews and providing feedback on measures that should be taken to strengthen compliance;
- providing bespoke training to Tier 4 compliance personnel;
- holding meetings with Vice Chancellors and Pro Vice Chancellors, owners, investors and others involved in formulating the strategic direction of an institution (HEI, public or private) to update them on key policy changes and the potential future impact on their institution/investment.
We also work with leading Counsel and provide a unique defence service for bona fide Tier 4 sponsors that are facing enforcement action. If you require legal advice concerning your institution’s Tier 4 sponsor licence please contact us.
(The original of this article has been updated in light of legislative updates.)