Tier 4 sponsors, which includes universities, schools and colleges, are naturally concerned about various issues arising from the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Here, we consider the guidance issued by the government to date, along with other relevant considerations.
We are updating this page as further information is released by the government that is relevant to Tier 4 sponsors. Information for Tier 2/5 sponsors is here. General information on visa applications, appointments and other aspects of the UK’s immigration and nationality system is here.
The information on our website is for general guidance only. Please refer to material produced by the government for further detail.
Guidance and information for Tier 4 sponsors from the Home Office to date
The Home Office initially released information about its response to the pandemic on 17 February 2020, updated on 27 February. This can be found here.
On 24 March 2020 the Home Office released further guidance.
On 25 March 2020 two factsheets were published (these are dated 24 March):
- Coronavirus (COVID-19) factsheet: visa holders and short-term residents in the UK; and
- Coronavirus (COVID-19) factsheet: visa customers outside of the UK.
On 26 March 2020 the Home Office sent out this email containing further information on absences and distance learning.
We have also had discussions with senior Home Office officials and some of the information provided is included in our guidance below.
The Home Office’s current position is that sponsors should, where possible, try and comply with the sponsor duties set out in the Sponsor Guidance. However, we have been told that a sponsor that cannot comply due to the pandemic, but is taking a reasonable and pragmatic approach, will not be penalised.
This position is supported by answers provided by Kevin Foster MP, Minster for Future Borders and Immigration, in parliament on Monday 23 March 2020:
“We are very clear that no one will have a negative outcome through the immigration system due to a circumstance that was beyond their control…We are looking at further measures…to ensure that no one is penalised because they followed the advice and did what they could to protect our NHS and save lives.”
We are finding that Home Office staff are generally willing to exercise some flexibility in processes. For example, allowing sponsors to email information instead of posting it to them. However, it is important that sponsors check the position on a case by case basis until more detailed guidance is issued.
Our current guidance for Tier 4 sponsors
Do sponsors need to take any action regarding student absences?
During the pandemic, if students who are sponsored under Tier 4 are absent from their studies for any reason that is ‘due to the coronavirus outbreak’, sponsors should treat this as an authorised absence. They do not have to report anything to UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI) or withdraw sponsorship. This includes absences of 60 days or more where there are ‘exceptional circumstances’.
The Home Office has confirmed that it ‘recognises the current situation is exceptional and will not take any compliance action against students…who are unable to attend their studies…due to the coronavirus outbreak, or against sponsors which authorise absences and continue to sponsor students…despite absences for this reason’.
We would recommend that sponsors keep some evidence – for example, email communication with the student/their parents, the organisation’s closure dates etc. – to demonstrate that the period of absence was due to coronavirus related concerns.
Is distance learning permitted?
Yes. The Home Office has confirmed that, exceptionally, they will not consider it a breach of the sponsor duties to offer distance learning to Tier 4 students who are in the UK, or who have returned home. Sponsors can also offer distance learning to international students who have been issued with a Tier 4 visa but who have not been able to travel to the UK.
Sponsors do not need to notify UKVI if they switch to distance learning.
The above arrangements apply until 31 May, when they will be reviewed.
What if the sponsor has been told the student will not be resuming studies?
If the sponsor has been told by the student/their parents that the student will not be resuming their studies, sponsorship must be withdrawn in the usual manner via the SMS.
Do sponsors still need to comply with general legislation?
Yes. It is important that all decisions are taken in accordance with relevant legislation.
There may also be significant reputational consequences for organisations that do not act in an appropriate manner during the pandemic.
Are things likely to change?
This is an evolving situation. We have been told that the Home Office is working urgently to prepare guidance for sponsors regarding the numerous issues relating to the pandemic. However, it may be some time before they can complete this work.
In the meantime, sponsors should take reasonable and pragmatic decisions concerning issues that are directly related to the pandemic and we would recommend that the reason for decisions are noted. Evidence supporting decisions should be obtained and kept.
We will be updating our website as and when any further guidance is issued by the government which may be relevant for Tier 4 sponsors.
How we can assist
If you are looking for general information, please review the guidance provided by the government which we refer to above. The government has also set up a Coronavirus Immigration Help Centre and you can find the details at the bottom of the page here.
If you are seeking legal advice and assistance regarding a specific sponsor licence matter during this time, please complete our enquiry form below and one of our team will be in contact with you.