The issue of student immigration has never been more high profile following UKBA’s decision to revoke London Metropolitan University’s Tier 4 sponsor licence and the University’s subsequent legal challenge. This follows on from 2 years of tightening of the UK’s immigration provisions as a result of the Government’s stated aim to reduce long term migration.

How UKBA strategy has changed the student immigration landscape

In December 2010 UKBA published a consultation document on the student immigration system. Whilst recognising the contribution that international students make to the UK economy the document expressed the Government’s concerns that the UK was attracting students who were not always the brightest and best and that too many students were not in compliance with the terms of their visa. It was also made clear that the Government saw the student route as a temporary one, and on completion of their studies, students would be expected to return to their countries of origin.

A number of changes to the student immigration regime followed in 2011 and 2012, including the introduction of Highly Trusted Sponsor status (HTS) and the abolition of the post-study work route.

Net migration and students

One of the current hot topics in respect of student immigration is whether the Government should count international students in its calculations of net migration levels. Net migration to the UK has increased by 400% since the mid 1990s. The latest figures from the Office for National Statistics, which were published in February 2012, show that net long term migration remains at record levels, namely 250,000 over the period July 2010 to June 2011. A long term migrant is one who changes his or her country of usual residence for a period of at least one year.

Study remains the most common reason for long term migration to the UK. There had been reports that David Willetts, the Universities Minister, had been lobbying for students to be excluded from the long term migration figures, but Damian Green, the then Immigration Minister, had argued that students should be counted in the figures.

In July 2012 the Home Affairs Committee issued its latest report on the work of the UKBA which concluded that students coming to the UK should be encouraged and that the Government’s current plans to reduce migration cannot be achieved without reducing the numbers of students. The report therefore recommended that the Government should exclude students from their net migration targets. In September it was announced that students from outside the EU would be counted separately in the immigration statistics.

Sponsoring international students

Being able to sponsor international students is crucial for many institutions. In order to do this an institution needs to be a licensed sponsor under Tier 4 and to then become a Highly Trusted Sponsor (HTS). The purpose of HTS is to ensure that all institutions take their obligations on immigration compliance seriously and comprises mandatory criteria and core measurable requirements which the institution must satisfy.

Institutions are required to apply for HTS once they have held a sponsor licence for 12 months. Whilst a Tier 4 sponsor licence is valid for four years, HTS needs to be renewed annually. If the institution is unsuccessful in its application for HTS or renewal of HTS then the sponsor licence will be revoked.

Revocation of licence

UKBA’s guidance sets out 27 circumstances in which an institution must have its licence revoked. The guidance also contains 15 circumstances in which UKBA will consider revoking an institution’s licence.

Where the licence is revoked then the institution cannot issue any further Certificates of Acceptance for Study (CASs) and any CASs that they have assigned will automatically become invalid, which means that any application a student makes on the basis of that CAS will be refused. In terms of existing students, revocation of the institution’s sponsor licence will result in the UKBA writing to those students curtailing their leave to 60 days, during the course of which the student will either have to find a new sponsor to study with or leave the UK.

Where the licence is revoked there is no right of appeal against UKBA’s decision and the avenue of challenge here is through the legal process of judicial review which is the process currently being pursued by London Metropolitan University. However, if the institution believes that the decision to revoke the licence has been taken on the basis of incorrect statistics then it is worth raising this first with UKBA, even though there is no formal appeal process, to see if UKBA will review the figures. We have supported clients in this process, with a successful outcome.

An institution that has had its licence revoked can apply for a new licence but not for a period of six months from the date of revocation.

Suspension of licence

UKBA can also suspend an institution’s licence where it has reason to believe that the institution is breaching its sponsorship duties or is a threat to immigration control. In these circumstances the institution has a 28 day period to make representations to UKBA as to why its licence should not be revoked. UKBA will consider those representations and may then proceed to revoke the licence or reinstate the licence. If it reinstates the licence it may reduce the number of CASs that the institution can assign and highlight areas of improvement which will be assessed at the next UKBA visit.

Whilst an institution’s licence is suspended it is unable to assign any new CASs but students who are being sponsored at the time of the suspension will not be affected. If, however, following suspension the institution’s sponsor licence is revoked then the consequences are as set out above.

If institutions find themselves in the unfortunate position of having their licence suspended or revoked, obtaining prompt legal advice in respect of the representations that should be made on their behalf is crucial to their chances of retaining their sponsor licence.