UK Visas and Immigration announced several changes to the Tier 4 Policy Guidance on 6th April. This encompasses the main Guidance document and that relating specifically to sponsor duties and compliance. Whilst there is nothing unexpected within the guidance, several items are important and should be noted.
The information within the Guidance as it most directly impacts sponsors is as follows:
- Students entering under the short term student route must be coming to the UK to study and must therefore be genuine. Sponsors should take steps to ensure that all its students have a genuine intention and ability to study.
- Students sponsored under Tier 4 were previously prevented from being self-employed. The Guidance takes this restriction one step further by preventing students from setting up a business which includes a prevention on holding the majority of shares of any business.
- The maximum time limit on study of 2 years for those studying below degree level and 5 years for those studying at or above degree level applies only to those students who have reached 18. As such calculations will be based on the leave granted for any particular course once the student has reached 18. It is unclear how calculations will be made if students complete or leave their course early as the Guidance only allows for a reduction in the calculation where leave has been curtailed.
- Academic progression rules provide that students must be academically progressing from their previous course of study. Study at a lower level is not allowed. In most cases progression will be obvious i.e. A levels to degree, or degree to masters. However where it is not obvious or the student wants to study a course at the same level the student will in most cases be required to return home to make the application. Publicly funded HEI or recognised body sponsors are able to exceptionally allow study at the same level for courses at degree level or above if it confirms:
- the new course is related to the previous course the student was given Tier 4 leave by being connected to the previous course, part of the same subject group or involves deeper specialisation; or
- the students previous and new course combined, supports the students genuine career aspirations.
Institutions must ensure that they properly consider whether either exemption applies and justify the decision by stating their rationale on the CAS. Evidence of the decision should also be retained for scrutiny on inspection as the Guidance states that abuse of the exception will be regarded as immigration abuse.
Students wishing to change course are only able to do so where: the sponsor is a publicly funded HEI or recognised body; the course is at degree level or above; the course is not at a lower level to students current course; the student is able to complete the course within the time allowed on their visa; and the sponsor is able to demonstrate that the change meets a or b as stated above. In all other cases the student will be required to return home or make a fresh Tier 4 application.
These changes took effect from 6 April 2016.
There are a number of other clarifications and changes to the Guidance and institutions should ensure that they have fully considered the changes and the impact on their institution. It is not clear what steps sponsors will be required to take in circumstances where their students have changed course prior to 6 April and will need to extend their studies to complete that course and we are seeking clarification on that point. Academic Progression continues to be a challenge for sponsors and we are advising a number of sponsors on their obligations in that regard. In the interim, institutions who are not confident that they are meeting the academic progression requirements or who require further clarification on the change of course rules or any of the changes within the Guidance, should contact us for advice.