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 provides an overview and is for general guidance only. Please refer to material produced by the government for further detail.
Latest guidance and information from the Home Office
The Home Office has a dedicated section of its website for immigration issues related to COVID-19. It has also produced ‘Covid-19: Guidance for Tier 4 Sponsors and Migrants and for Short-term students’, the latest version of which can be found here.
The Home Office’s approach to immigration issues arising from the pandemic is updated regularly and we recommend that anyone seeking guidance checks the above information first of all.
In our general information briefing, you can also find information on how, since February 2020, the Home Office has developed its response to immigration issues arising from the pandemic.
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.
We have provided information below regarding some of the main questions we are receiving.
Our current guidance for Tier 4 sponsors
Do sponsors need to take any action regarding student absences?
The Home Office has confirmed that it will not take enforcement action against sponsors who continue to sponsor students who are absent from their studies due to COVID-19. It has also confirmed that sponsors do not need to report such absences or withdraw sponsorship. This includes absences of 60 days due to the pandemic where the student intends to resume their studies.
Sponsors must maintain records of students who are absent due to the pandemic. We would also 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 the pandemic.
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.
Is distance learning permitted?
Yes. The Home Office has confirmed that, exceptionally, sponsors can offer distance learning to Tier 4 students who are in the UK, who have returned home or who have recently received a Tier 4 visa but are unable to travel to the UK.
Sponsors do not need to notify UKVI if they switch to distance learning.
If they are unable to provide sufficient teaching, sponsors are not required to meet the 15 hours study per week rule for below degree level courses.
Where possible, sponsors should monitor attendance via online contact points but will not be penalised if unable to do so due to practical or technical reasons.
The above arrangements apply until 31 May, when they will be reviewed.
What if a sponsor has issued a Confirmation of Acceptance for Studies (CAS) and the student has not yet applied for a visa?
The Home Office has confirmed that if the CAS has not been marked as ‘used’ or ‘expired’, the sponsor can update the new course date in the sponsor notes field. The student can then apply for a visa at the appropriate time.
Otherwise, where the CAS has expired or has been used, but the student has not been able to travel to the UK, the Home Office will consider exceptionally allowing the CAS to support a new visa application on a case by case basis. The caseworker will need to be satisfied that the CAS expired, or the student was unable to travel to the UK, because of the pandemic.
Students who are in the UK waiting for an application to be decided
The Home Office has confirmed that Tier 4 sponsors, other than legacy sponsors, can allow a student to commence studies providing a CAS has been assigned, the student submitted an in-time application for further leave to remain, the course is the same as listed on the CAS and, where relevant, the student has a valid ATAS certificate (the guidance explains who these are to be applied for during the pandemic). This only applies to students who are in the UK.
The Home Office has stated that if the student’s application is eventually refused, their studies must be terminated.
It has also stated that the sponsor’s reporting duties start from when the CAS was assigned.
English language requirements and pre-sessional courses
Where students are unable to take a SELT overseas, certain sponsors can self-assess students as having B1 level English. This is only where the main course is dependent on the passing of a pre-sessional.
A sponsor that can benefit must be a higher education provider:
- that has a track record of compliance, or
- that does not yet have a track record of compliance due to a pending registration with the OfS; or
- is not eligible to register with the OfS.
Sponsors must keep records to demonstrate how they undertook the assessment and it must be noted that the student was unable to take a SELT.
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.
The following organisations are providing up to date information for Tier 4 sponsors and international students:
Are things likely to change?
This is an evolving situation and we can expect there to be further changes.
Where there is no clear guidance and sponsors are unable to obtain a clear answer from the Home Office in time, they 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.
First published: 17 March 2020
Last updated: 22 April 2020