As a reminder, the UK Border Agency announced last year that from April 2012, all institutions wishing to recruit overseas students would be required to attain Highly Trusted Sponsor status ("HTS") in seeking to obtain or maintain their Tier 4 licence and be able to continue to sponsor overseas students.

HTS was previously seen as something of a "gold standard" beyond the standard "A rating" or lower "B rating" licence status, although institutions who have not previously acted as Tier 4 sponsors will be granted in the first instance the lower A rating for a limited period.

The UKBA's July 2012 Policy Guidance sets down the process the UKBA will adopt when considering eligibility for HTS and confirms that the UKBA will consider the following mandatory criteria:

  • Sponsors must have been of HTS or "A rated" Tier 4 sponsorship status for at least 12 consecutive months preceding an HTS application being made.
  • Refusal rates must be less than 20%; ie on the basis of all Confirmations of Acceptance for Studies ("CASs") assigned by the institution which students used in seeking permission to stay or remain in the UK in the 12 months immediately before an institution applies for HTS, less than 20% of visa applications must be refused by the UKBA.
  • Enrolment rates must represent at least 90% of all CASs assigned within the enrolment period in the 12 month period immediately before an HTS application.
  • At least 85% of students sponsored by the institution who enrol must complete their course, based upon the number of students who should have completed within the 12 months previous to the HTS application being made, although students who move to another institution or immigration category (or who leave the UK) are excluded from the UKBA's calculation.
  • Appropriate declarations of academic progression must have been provided by the institution where required on all (ie 100%) CASs assigned in the past 12 months.
  • No civil penalties must have been incurred by the institution during the three year period before the institution applies (subject to any rights of appeal).

If an institution meets those mandatory requirements, the UKBA will then go on as a further stage to consider more closely refusal rates, enrolment rates and course completion rates. It is important to note that even if an institution meets the mandatory thresholds identified above, a combination of, say, a high refusal rate percentage and low enrolment rate could mean than an application for HTS is still refused under this secondary process.

The UKBA will also consider an institution's historic compliance with immigration requirements and the systems they have in place to enable them to meet Tier 4 sponsor duties.

As a further change to the system from April 2012, the UKBA also requires that by the end of this year all Tier 4 sponsors must have been inspected, audited or approved by one of the educational oversight bodies designated by the UKBA. As the appropriate body for the higher education sector has been deemed by the UKBA to be the Quality Assurance Agency ("QAA") for some institutions this did not represent a change to that required previously. However, those in the "for profit" sector are now required as an added dimension of compliance to obtain a satisfactory finding to safeguard their valuable HTS status.

Clearly it is of the utmost commercial and reputational importance that institutions that wish to recruit overseas students take active and ongoing steps to protect, insofar as is possible, their credentials in the fields above. One example of how recruitment practises can be safeguarded is in the field of collaborative activity, where careful due diligence is required when considering potential partners. We will post in more detail on the UKBA provisions relating to partner institutions and branches shortly as part of our special series of Tier 4 updates over the next fortnight.