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Education briefing – The new immigration system: getting ready and reviewing risk

  • United Kingdom
  • Education - Briefings


As a result of the UK leaving the EU, free movement of people is ending on 31 December 2020. From this date, having a sponsor licence will become essential for institutions who recruit staff and/or students from within the EEA, as it has been up to now for those recruiting outside the EEA.

In this e-brief, we will explore what institutions need to be thinking about to get ready for the changes, whether they are currently registered sponsors or not. While the changes will be particularly important for any institutions (mainly at FE level) who have until now been able to recruit EEA staff/students without needing to be a sponsor under Tier 2 or Tier 4, there are still important issues for existing sponsors to think about.

This briefing looks at some of the key questions and actions which can be taken now.

Questions to consider

Do we need a sponsor licence?

You will if in the future you want to recruit EEA nationals who arrive in the UK after 31 December 2020.

We recommend acting now if you do not already have a sponsor licence to ensure that you are able to recruit the talent required from January 2021. It is expected that there will be a surge in sponsor licence applications in the next few months, impacting on the application processing times. We can support with sponsor license applications and essentially this involves ensuring that the institution meets the eligibility and suitability criteria set by the Home Office, nominating individuals to take on roles regarding the sponsor licence and providing required supporting evidence.

What should I be thinking about before I apply?

Things to think about will include the workforce that you need to recruit as well as your student recruitment strategy. For example which talent pipelines are likely to be impacted by Brexit and are those roles one you would be able to sponsor under the new rules?

In addition, consider the costs involved with being a sponsor as this will involve costing not only the sponsor license application fees but also the sponsorship charges that will be applicable to each individual you sponsor. The institution will be required to nominate key post holders on the licence to be responsible for overall compliance and to undertake day to day tracking and reporting actions. It is important that the right individuals are identified from the outset depending on their area of responsibility and expertise.

We are already a sponsor, do I need to do anything?

As the requirement to sponsor staff and/or students will apply to EEA nationals, you will be making greater use of your sponsor licence from January 2021. It is worth being prepared for the following:

• increased costs when recruiting EEA nationals which will include sponsorship costs along with visa fees and charges – all of which will need to be factored into your budgeting

• do you have have the right resource levels in place to manage a rise in your sponsored workforce/student population in relation to the record keeping and reporting requirements and (as far as staff are concerned) to ensure that visa holders and expiry dates are tracked?

• are you able to assess how many additional Certificates of Sponsorship/Certificates of Acceptance for Studies you are likely to need from 1 January 2021 onwards?

• are the relevant teams aware of the new rules which come into force in January 2021 or is internal training needed for your HR/student recruitment teams and for those with responsibility on your current licence(s)?

• further, it is unknown whether there will be a rise in auditing of existing sponsors carried out by the Home Office. However, it may be prudent to undertake an internal review to ensure that your current processes are robust and that all of your compliance obligations are being complied with in respect of your current sponsored population

Should we be bringing forward start dates of new EEA national employees to this year?

This is definitely something worth considering if you can and if it is appropriate to do so because they may be able to qualify for pre-settled status rather than have to fit into the new immigration system.

There are some potential big advantages to doing this. Pre-settled status within the EUSS grants, effectively, the right to work in the UK for the next five years. It’s free, takes about 15 minutes to do and, other than those with serious criminal convictions, all currently resident EEA citizens qualify. Contrast that with the potential alternative of sponsoring a Tier 2 visa; several thousand pounds of expense for employer and assignee, a regulatory regime to comply with, the possibility that the basis for qualification will change in the future and that some workers won’t qualify anyway.

For those with a Tier 2/Tier 4 licence already, is it fit for increased usage?

For many institutions, the extension of the sponsorship regime to EEA nationals is going to mean a major increase in the number of Certificates of Sponsorship/Certificates of Acceptance for Studies issued each year, with a concurrent additional costs and regulatory responsibility on the institution. For smaller sponsors, it is often the case that one individual within a team has responsibility for all matters relating to immigration, which works well in the context of only a small number of certificates being issued each year. After the end of the Brexit transition period, that may need to change.

Have you assessed the potential additional costs of sponsorship of EEA workers? Do you need more Level 1 Users? Do more people need to be trained to use the system? Have budgets been agreed to reflect the additional spend?

Under the new regime for skilled workers, the removal of the resident labour market test, the fall in the relevant skill level to RQF3 and a change in minimum salary thresholds is likely to result in a spike in the number of candidates applying for eligible roles. Candidates will have an increased expectation that they could be sponsored (if a visa is required), as the resident labour market test will no longer prevent sponsorship where there are suitable settled workers in the pool. As there will be a larger pool of job roles capable of sponsorship than ever before, it is likely that most employers will seek a spike in the requirement for sponsorship.

How can we prepare for Brexit?

Whilst the necessary steps to take will vary considerably from institution to institution, we would suggest planning for the impact of Brexit should include each of the following.

1. Assessing the institution’s’ reliance on EEA staff in key strategic areas of your operations and whether the employee retention rate has changed

Many employers have done this already, but it will need to be an ongoing process post-Brexit which identifies the extent to which your institution has an operational reliance on non-EEA and EEA labour and how this may change over the coming 12 – 24 months.

2. Identifying skill shortages and assessing the need for alternative visa types

Areas of skill shortage may not always correspond to those occupations for which a visa can be obtained.

3. Considering the extent to which EEA nationals are aware of the EUSSS Compliance and any refusals or delay of status.

The official Government statistics advise of more than 3.5 million settled status applications to date, which suggests most EEA nationals in the UK do understand the requirements and have applied. This might not be the problem which it initially appeared, but some applications do seem difficult. In particular, we’ve noted that EEA Family Permit applications seem to take much longer than others, as do those relying on more complicated legal rights.

4. Work out how to accommodate the impact of the new regime and risk of future entry restrictions

EEA citizens have been used to largely unrestricted access to the UK for almost fifty years, so immigration restrictions are new in the lifetime of almost everyone who works in the UK and lives in the EEA. So how can this be made easier? Are there restrictions which may similarly impact your British staff travelling to Europe for business visits/work.

There will be a need to fundamentally review immigration processes and compliance at the end of the Brexit transition period. The lockdown period has, in our view, obscured the fact that these changes will occur in January 2021 and that, however well prepared, institutions need to check they will be ready for this. We hope that asking the questions above and following the suggested approaches will help to prepare.