In December 2014, UKVI began consulting on changes to the Tier 4 guidance; Penningtons Manches’ immigration team has been heavily involved in that consultation process. The latest version of the guidance, published on 4 March 2015, brings about some significant changes to the way education providers work together and structure their sponsor licences. Below we take you through some of the events that led to this point as well as review some of the main changes and how they impact on education providers.

In February 2014 a BBC Panorama programme revealed that ETS, an official English language test provider, had been allegedly engaged in 'systematic cheating' in its UK centres. This resulted in an investigation being launched into English language tests for student visa applicants.

On 24 June 2014, James Brokenshire, the Immigration Minister, delivered a statement to Parliament outlining details of action being taken against a number of Tier 4 sponsors. The action followed an investigation into the alleged abuse of the Tier 4 Student route. In his statement, the Minister announced that two universities were being prevented from sponsoring new students, and one university and 57 private further education colleges’ Tier 4 sponsor licences were being suspended. Since the statement was made all three universities have had their ability to sponsor international students reinstated. However, around 65 private providers have lost their Tier 4 licences.

In the same month QAA announced a review of branch campuses. The purpose of the review was to conduct an independent inquiry into the quality and standards of UK higher education courses “delivered through London branch campuses”. The QAA published its report in December 2014. The report found that London campuses “are generally well managed”.

When UKVI began its talks with various member organisations concerning significant changes to the rules on partnerships in December 2014, it had initially envisaged that swift changes would be made to the Tier 4 guidance. However, following an overwhelming response from the sector, UKVI consulted further with education providers, stakeholder groups and representative bodies regarding the proposed changes to the Tier 4 guidance.

Following the consultation process, the Home Office has published the latest version of the Tier 4 guidance for sponsors. Below we go through the main changes, affecting sponsor licence structures. To read the sponsor guidance in full, which we recommend, please click here.

Sites and teaching partnerships

The guidance sets out the new guiding principle under which the changes have been made which is that:

There needs to be a direct relationship between a sponsor and the student they are sponsoring to study in the UK. This cannot be distorted or diluted by any corporate structure or collaborative arrangement that education providers enter into. Therefore the institution which teaches Tier 4 students must take responsibility for sponsoring them.

From this it follows that the main changes can be split into two:

  1. An institution or an umbrella organisation may not hold more than one Tier 4 licence
  2. An institution which teaches Tier 4 students must be that student’s sponsor

The immigration team has been liaising directly with UKVI policy officials since the beginning of the consultation process and has made representations on behalf of clients, who were likely to be most impacted by the proposed changes. We are pleased that special provisions have been made for some specific exceptional arrangements where an embedded college or joint venture is an autonomous institution with close links to a single HEI.

All institutions teaching Tier 4 students should check to see where they fall in the attached tables.

If an institution finds that it does not fit into any of the categories it should contact us immediately to discuss its structure and how the changes may impact its existing students.

If an institution finds that it does not fit into any of the categories it should contact us immediately to discuss its structure and how the changes may impact its existing students.

To assist UKVI in establishing who does and does not fit into the new guidance, all Tier 4 sponsors will be sent a ‘Sites and Partnerships form’ to complete by mid-April. Sponsors then need to return the completed form by Friday 15 May 2015. Sponsors who do not provide a satisfactorily completed form may have their CAS allocation set to zero until they do so.

The ‘sites and partnerships form’ will invite sponsors to:

  • provide information on the sponsor’s sites (in accordance with table 1), proposed exceptional arrangements (in accordance with table 2) and teaching partnerships (in accordance with table 3); and
  • demonstrate that it complies with the conditions outlined, or set out how it will demonstrate it does so.

Completing this form will also be an opportunity to ask for CAS to be re-allocated to a teaching partner.

Students assigned CAS on or before 30 September 2015 will not be affected by any change in the structure unless they will require an extension. Any CAS assigned on or after this date will need to meet the new guidance.

Below we summarise the key points for each type of organisation.

Higher education institutions (HEIs)

An HEI should list on its Tier 4 licence all sites which are part of the HEI and that it will use to teach Tier 4 students, including any teaching hospitals, and any sites used by any joint venture entity set up to deliver higher education courses (but see exceptional arrangements in table 2 relating to short term joint ventures).

With the exception of teaching hospitals, these sites must be fully integrated with broadly the same policies, procedures and regulations applying across the HEI in relation to Tier 4 students. There should be processes in place to ensure that this is delivered in practice in all sites.

It is important that HEIs review all their sites to make sure that they comply with these requirements and full integration can be demonstrated.

Private providers

The key change here is that private providers will need to operate under one Tier 4 licence. This is unless they are an independent school or fall under the exceptional arrangements ie are embedded offering pathway courses with their own licence.

The largest impact will be on those providers who have held multiple licences. These providers will now need to centralise their compliance functions. However, UKVI states that grouping sites under a single licence should not prevent a private provider from putting effective policies and procedures in place at a local level across all sites in order to comply with its sponsorship duties eg day-to-day student contact and attendance management. We have worked with many providers and assisted them with putting in place centralised compliance functions. If you require further assistance in relation to operating under one licence, please contact us.

It should also be noted that where a private provider has more than one type of education institution on its licence, the institutions may have educational oversight from different educational oversight bodies.

Independent schools

A more flexible approach will be taken for independent schools. They can choose to either operate under one single licence or continue to hold multiple licences. In addition under the new guidance independent schools, regardless of the number of CAS assigned, will be considered under the discretionary assessment for HTS.

Public funded FE colleges

A publicly funded FE college should list all sites that it will use to teach Tier 4 students on its Tier 4 licence. So similarly to private providers, it is expected to operate under a single licence.

Overseas HEIs

The provisions under this category remain the same. However an overseas HEI which offers short-term study abroad programmes will need to list on its Tier 4 licence all sites in the UK that it will use to teach Tier 4 students and will need to operate under one licence.

HEI and embedded colleges – exceptional arrangements

Embedded colleges offering pathway courses (not including pre-sessional courses) may hold their own Tier 4 licence and sponsor their own students under this provision or alternatively operate under the single licence provision of their network. UKVI have confirmed that under this arrangement an embedded college cannot be listed on the HEI's licence.

Embedded colleges offering integrated programmes (not including pre-sessional courses) which students complete at that HEI. Under this provision students must be sponsored by the HEI.

Embedded college set up as a joint venture – where there is an entity created by a joint venture agreement to deliver pathway courses which prepare students for entry to higher education programmes at that HEI. Under this provision the students must be sponsored by the HEI. It should be noted that this provision does not include joint ventures where the students are being taught the whole programme at the private provider.

Short term joint ventures – under this provision the joint venture will be for a time limited period and the HEI will be required to justify why it is necessary to set up a joint venture entity rather than a new site or any other teaching arrangement. In addition, the majority of the students taught at the JV will need to be from the UK/EEA/Switzerland.

Teaching partnerships previously known as partnership arrangements

A sponsor must list all the teaching partnerships it wishes to use to teach Tier 4 students on its sponsor licence. Where both partners are Tier 4 sponsors, the partnership must be listed on both licences regardless of which sponsor is issuing CAS under the partnership. The various types of arrangements can be found here.

Conclusion

Tier 4 sponsors should review the Tier 4 guidance to make sure where their arrangement sits. Where Tier 4 sponsors have arrangements with other providers both must make sure that they liaise with each other before completing the sites and partnerships form. In document 3 of the guidance, UKVI has clarified that it will take action against the institution if it fails to adhere to its sponsor duties in respect of any student that the institution is sponsoring across any of its sites. The guidance goes on to state that where there is considered to be non-compliance relating to a partnership arrangement between more than one Tier 4 sponsor, then action will be taken against the sponsor responsible for the non-compliance.