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Education briefing - How does the immigration system serve the needs of the higher education sector and what might change?

  • United Kingdom
  • Education - Briefings




On 30 June 2022, the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration published his report “An inspection of the immigration system as it relates to the higher education sector October 2021-March 2022”. The report made three recommendations – in relation to (1) the Graduate route, (2) the Premium Customer Service Teams for Work and Study and (3) compliance. All of the recommendations (which are set out in more detail below) have been accepted by the Home Office.

The inspection, which was undertaken to gain an understanding of the interaction between the UK’s immigration system and the higher education sector, focused on the following areas:

• the effectiveness of the immigration routes available to international students, staff and visiting academics

• the burden of compliance for sponsors

• the extent and quality of communication and engagement between the Home Office and the HE sector

• the availability and usefulness of guidance for study and work applications

• the quality and the value to the sector of the services provided by the Premium Customer Service Teams

• continuous improvement, including the transition to digital status

Amongst the activities undertaken by the inspectors in compiling the report were:

• analysing the 47 submissions to the call for evidence (which had been made on 21 October 2021) from a range of stakeholders including higher education institutions (HEIs), representative bodies, non-governmental organisations and members of the public

• reviewing documents requested from the Home Office

• conducting interviews and focus groups with HEIs, endorsing bodies and other stakeholders, representing the interests of the HE sector

• conducting interviews and focus groups with Home Office staff

In coming to its recommendations (below) the report reached a number of conclusions in relation to the following five areas - immigration routes; compliance and assurance; premium customer service teams; communication and engagement; and continuous improvement.

The conclusions

Immigration routes

The report concluded that through the introduction of the new points-based system, the Home Office has delivered a number of changes that have been beneficial to the HE sector – in particular the introduction of the Graduate route, expansion of the Global Talent route, reforms to the Skilled Worker route and steps taken to improve the Student route. However, there is still a perception that the Home Office does not truly understand how the sector works and there is scope for both parties to improve understanding of each other’s operations.

In the immigration routes section there is a useful summary of the Graduate, Global Talent, Skilled Worker, Student and Visitor routes and how they are perceived. For example, in the 6 months since its launch in July 2021 there were 28,913 applications under the Graduate route of which only 213 were unsuccessful. Feedback on the route was overwhelmingly positive, although stakeholders identified areas where they considered improvements could be made – such as a reduction of visa fees and visa durations were noted to be shorter than other competitor countries (such as Australia and Canada, which offer a 3-year visa).

In relation to the Skilled Worker route feedback from the sector was that there had been clear benefits from the removal of the Resident Labour Market Test, lifting of caps on skilled workers, lower salary thresholds and tradeable points, the introduction of which has meant that HEIs are able to sponsor a wider variety of roles, including postdoctoral researchers, early career academics and other highly skilled research talent.

The Global Talent route was also seen as positive, and stakeholders viewed this route as a new opportunity to attract the most talented of international researchers. Inspectors heard from some HEIs that Global Talent had become the “route of choice”

Whilst the HE sector is less reliant on the use of visitor routes there were a number of areas where the HE sector felt improvements could be made including:

• increasing flexibility to academics to come to the UK periodically to teach and/or discuss their research expertise with students

• extending the time permitted under the permitted paid engagement route from one month to three months, to coincide with the normal length of a university term and to accommodate the examination period

• considering provisions for students who wish to come to the UK to undertake standalone work placements

• improving arrangements for visitors arriving in the UK who are directed to e-Passport gates, but require specific conditions to be granted as part of their leave when they enter the UK

• extending the time that exchange students can come to the UK with leave for short-term study for up to 1 year

Compliance and assurance

Although the report found that strong relationships between the Home Office and HEIs and representative bodies were evident in compliance and assurance, with the Home Office working with sponsors to address compliance issues early so that appropriate actions, such as revocations of licences, were not necessary, it also found tension between what the HE sector would like in terms of trust, and what the Home Office is willing to give. It concluded that it was questionable whether the Home Office has got the balance right, and if the burden imposed is proportionate to the current risk, rather than the historical risks.

Its view was that the Home Office’s record keeping is in need of improvement as while it was able to produce evidence of Basic Compliance Assessments (BCAs) and qualitative data from Higher Education Assurance Team visits, it could not provide data relating to the overall level of compliance in the sector and without efforts to properly measure compliance across the sector, the Home Office was missing out on opportunities to reward those who are compliant and to continually reassess whether their measures are proportionate.

There is also a useful analysis of the Home Office team responsible for student sponsorship and compliance, which is made up of three sections:

• the Student Sponsor Compliance Team, which is responsible for assessing pre-licence applications and for making decisions about whether compliance action is appropriate based on the level of risk and breaches of sponsorship duties

• the Student Sponsor Assessment Team, responsible for supporting sponsors to maintain licences, including assessing annual BCAs, sponsor licence renewals, and dealing with other ad hoc case working, such as reviewing a change of circumstances request

• the Higher Education Assurance Team (HEAT), responsible for conducting on-site inspection visits to HEIs to ensure they are compliant

During the period 1 January 2019 to 31 January 2022, HEAT visited 44 of the 190 university sponsors for compliance visits. Of these, only 9 (20%) were not issued with formal warnings. The remaining 44 (80%) were issued with ‘maintain with advisory’ letters – also known as formal warnings letters – indicating that, while failings were not significant enough to warrant an action plan, HEAT had identified ‘minor concerns’. It appears that these concerns mainly related to attendance monitoring, record keeping and student tracking.

Amongst the other observations made by the sector were frustrations with burdensome and expensive compliance requirements, how difficult the requirements were to keep up with and feeling pressure and anxiety over the perceived danger of Home Office action or licence revocation in response to any mistakes.

Premium Customer Service Teams

There are two 2 Premium Customer Service Teams, one for employee sponsors – the Worker and temporary worker Premium Customer Service Team - and the other for study sponsors – the Student Premium Customer Service Team (SPCST). Whilst the report mentions both it focuses on the SPCST as 163 HEIs subscribe to that as opposed to only 17 subscribing to the employee version.

The report identified a clear disconnect between what the Home Office envisaged the SPCST offer to be, and what the HE sector expected from that offer, and that there was acknowledgement at a senior level in the Home Office that the service could be better than its current offering.

Feedback from the sector on the service was generally negative, though some subscribers were positive. Criticisms included that that the SPCST was not consider to represent value for money (the annual fee being £8,000), that the service did not feel particularly ‘premium’ and should be offered to HEIs within the sponsor licensing fee, and there was significant dissatisfaction with the Account Management Portal, which was considered by users to be outdated and not fit for purpose.

Communication and engagement

It was evident from contributions to the inspection from both the HE sector and the Home Office that communications and engagement had improved significantly in recent years, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic when the Home Office had listened to the practical concerns of the sector and used this insight to inform its pandemic response.

Interestingly, whilst the Home Office said it was broadly content with the level of engagement it has, the sector would like more. In particular, it would like the Home Office to be more transparent regarding plans for future changes. The report concluded that this was not always possible, and there are limitations on what the Home Office can do for the sector, but that more could be done to explain why some changes are necessarily last-minute.

 Continuous improvement

The conclusion here was that staff throughout the different Study teams were engaged and committed to change and improvements. However, given the close relationships between the HE sector and the Home Office, more could be done to formalise feedback loops to help drive continuous improvement.

In particular, the sector reported concerns with Biometric Residence Permits (BRPs), with issues ranging from incorrect conditions of leave being granted to misdelivery of BRPs in the UK. The report notes that in 2021, a comprehensive recovery plan was implemented to improve the BRP system and minimise disruption to customers which has resulted in a marked improvement in performance, but states that the Home Office needs to ensure that it sustains this performance throughout the lifetime of BRPs (currently it is planned to phase out BRPs by the end of December 2024 in favour of digital status).

As far as digital status is concerned, following the introduction in July 2021 to an initial cohort of applicants, HE stakeholders reported some teething problems with the new system, and the report says that it is important that the Home Office listens to the concerns of HE stakeholders to ensure that they address any such problems at any early stage.

It also notes that there have been plans to replace the Sponsorship Management System for many years, and users of the system would likely be very frustrated should there be any further delays.

What are the recommendations?

Recommendation one – the Graduate route

By August 2022, the Home Office should conduct a review of the Graduate route:

• to monitor and report on the success of the route after the first 12 months of operation, tracking the number of applications received, broken down by nationality and most recent qualification in the UK

• developing this analysis, work with representative bodies to evaluate the impact of the Graduate route on international student recruitment, considering to what extent the route has helped universities diversify in international markets

In accepting this recommendation the Home Office has said that the Graduate Route operational team regularly use existing data to monitor and analyse operational trends and will work with Home Office Science colleagues on expanding and developing this into an initial report by August 2022. The report will be shared with analysts from the Department for Education and wider professional membership bodies to secure feedback, insight, and areas to develop, with a fully-consolidated report being available in October 2022.

Recommendation two - Premium Customer Service Teams

By October 2022, the Home Office should, undertake a comprehensive review of the Premium Customer Service Teams for Work and Study, taking into account feedback from the sector and findings from this inspection to:

• review roles, responsibilities and grade structures for those working in the team

• provide refresher training to the team and reinstate quality assurance mechanisms to improve consistency and accuracy of the advice they provide

• identify what the sector wants from the service, working with sector representatives to develop agreed service standards

In accepting this recommendation the Home Office says that it has commenced a full and comprehensive review of Premium Service offerings, including direct engagement with existing Premium subscribers and umbrella education sector bodies to ensure their needs and suggestions are taken into account in designing the new service. It would expect to have a report reflecting the needs of the sector and identifying a range of potential options for the new service by October 2022.

Recommendation three – Compliance

By March 2023, in relation to the Study routes in the UK, the Home Office should develop and apply mechanisms to measure the overall compliance of the HE sector (as opposed to the Basic Compliance Assessment process, which applies to individual institutions) to:

• accurately measure, supported by quantitative and qualitative evidence, the level of abuse of the Study visa route by non-genuine students

• on an annual basis, using the evidence acquired assess whether the HE sector’s sponsorship compliance duties are proportionate to the risk of abuse

In accepting this recommendation the Home Office comments that as part of its ongoing engagement work with the sector around areas of emerging risk, it already uses a range of qualitative and quantitative data to inform the overall picture and areas of focus and it will continue to develop our work in this regard.

In relation to the sector’s sponsorship compliance duties being proportionate to the risk of abuse, it says it will continue to engage with the sector to agree how it can best make further changes to the sponsorship of students and will further improve compliance through better data-sharing with sponsors, combined with easier-to-view information to measure compliance and act where required. In addition, it will explore with education providers how it can deliver reforms to the strategic design of student sponsorship to deliver benefits for users.

Finally, it is moving to a service delivery model which will include provision of service managers by September 2022 and part of their role will be to look at compliance data from the sector as whole. By March 2023 it will be using sector compliance data as part of its service management data packs at Executive Boards.