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Education briefing - Covid-19 - Temporary concessions for Tier 4 students - Institutions to breathe a sigh of relief?

  • United Kingdom
  • Education - Coronavirus

22-06-2020

There is no question that the Coronavirus pandemic has impacted upon every individual and organisation in the past months. Not least of all the many thousands of international students who come to the UK each Autumn in order to commence or continue their studies, and the education providers who, to varying degrees, rely upon their enrolment as important for their continued success.

Understandably, before the travel restrictions were imposed, many existing international students sought ways to return to their home countries. In a departure from the usual bi-annual policy updates to the Tier 4 sponsor guidance, UK Visas and Immigration (“UKVI”) responded reasonably quickly to the issues faced by education sector in the face of this mass exodus of students.

UKVI response to Covid-19

The Tier 4 visa route allows international students to come to the UK to study. Where a course can be studied online and there is no real need for the student to physically be in the UK, as a rule, Tier 4 will not be suitable. It’s hard to argue with the logic of this rule but how can this apply during a global pandemic with lockdown measures in place? A UKVI factsheet released on 24 March 2020 partially acknowledged this issue:

“…we will not consider it a breach of sponsor duties to offer distance learning to existing Tier 4 students in the UK or who have chosen to return overseas but wish to continue their current studies...New international students who have been issued a Tier 4 visa but have been unable to travel to the UK are permitted to undertake distance learning and sponsorship does not need to be withdrawn.”

Whilst undoubtedly helpful to existing Tier 4 students, the factsheet went on to say the following:

“New international students who have not yet applied for a visa but wish to commence a course by distance learning do not need to travel to the UK to do so and therefore do not require sponsorship under Tier 4.”

On the face of it, this statement does make sense, but of course, it caused huge concern to education providers. Why would a student pay international student fees to study at home from their laptops? Universities, colleges and independent schools, prepared themselves for the potentially considerable numbers of deferrals and drop-outs for the coming 2020-21 academic year, with the implications that would have.

Further guidance was released specifically for Tier 4 migrants and short-term students in April 2020, containing a number of temporary concessions in light of Covid-19, including:

• confirmation that no enforcement action will be taken against sponsors who continue to sponsor students who are absent from their studies due to Covid-19 and there is no need for sponsors to report student absences related to Covid-19

• sponsors must maintain absence records for all students but do not need to report where a student missing expected contact points, although the use of online contact points are recommended where possible

• no need for sponsors to withdraw sponsorship for students who are unable to attend for more than 60 days but intend to resume their studies;

• no need to report a change of circumstance for students who are continuing to study visa distance learning, either within the UK or abroad

• students studying at below degree level are not required to meet the 15 hours study per week if the sponsor is unable to provide sufficient tuition

• student withdrawals as a result of Covid-19 will be discounted from a sponsor’s date in future Basic Compliance Assessments

• the ability for higher education providers to self-assess students as having a B1 level of English, where progressions on the main course of study is dependant on passing the pre-sessional course where a student cannot take a SELT due to centre closures

Whilst all extremely helpful for existing and imminent international student arrivals, this guidance was not sufficient to allow education providers to effectively plan for the next academic year.

Latest ‘temporary concessions’ introduced

Unfortunately, it was not until the 16 June 2020 that UKVI addressed some of the outstanding concerns of the sector. The latest guidance released has made several promising concessions, including that ‘sponsors can also commence sponsoring new students who will start studying through distance or blended learning in the 2020-2021 academic year, provided they intend to transition to face-to-face learning as soon as circumstances allow. Institutions will now have more confidence to continue recruiting international students for the upcoming academic year with the knowledge that, whilst they may be unable to physically enrol on the course at the beginning, they can join as a Tier 4 student as soon as they are able.

Another helpful change to the guidance is to clarify that although students will normally be expected to undertake their studies in the UK to be eligible for the forthcoming Graduate route, that if they are required to either continue their current studies, or commence a new course, by distance or blended learning due to Covid-19, they will still be eligible to switch into the route as long as they enter the UK before 6 April 2021 and complete the final semester of their studies in the UK. Students and institutions will welcome this clarification as the new Graduate route presents an attractive opportunity to many seeking to remain in the UK to work after their studies.

Too little too late?

Planning for the next academic year and student recruitment initiatives are not undertaken only within the months immediately proceeding the main Autumn intake. In some respects, this updated guidance may have come too late as a number of students will have already taken the decision to defer or not come at all. It also remains to be seen whether international students will take the risk of enrolling on a UK course as a Tier 4 student where they have no certainty on when and how they will be able to physically engage with their fellow students and teachers and enjoy the diverse cultural experience which is celebrated within UK institutions.

Hopefully, however, the substantial work institutions are carrying out to ensure the maintenance, as far as possible in the current circumstances, of the student experience, combined with the gradual easing of lockdown, will ensure that the UK remains an attractive destination for international students.

To help achieve that institutions should familiarise themselves with the updated guidance and take into account any changes to it in the forthcoming weeks.