The most significant recent change to the Tier 4 Sponsor Guidance (version 08/2014) (“the Guidance”) is in relation to the criteria for applying for Highly Trusted Sponsor (HTS) status, as the Home Office have lowered the refusal rate from less than 20% to less than 10%. They have also removed the scoring aspect of the consideration and removed the ‘near miss’ outcome. Transitional arrangements will apply to sponsors between 1 November 2014 and 31 July 2015. This change will significantly impact certain  sponsors whose previous refusal rates may have been on the borderline of the 20% threshold, and will also cause difficulties for sponsors who have small student numbers.

Current regime

By way of reminder, the current Mandatory requirements for HTS relate to refusal rates (which must be less than 20% currently), enrolment rates (which must be at least  90%) and course completion rates (which must be at least 85%). The sponsor must also ensure that it has held a Tier 4 sponsor licence for 12 months before first applying for HTS, and must not have become liable to pay a civil penalty in the three year period immediately before applying for the HTS licence.

The HTS application will be refused and the licence will be suspended if one or more of these requirements are not met. Assuming they are met, the Home Office move on to look at the Core Measurable requirements and apply a scoring exercise to assess how close the sponsor is to the threshold. A sponsor starts with a score of 100 and the HTS application will only be granted if the sponsor scores 70 points or more. If it falls below 70, it scores a ‘near miss’, meaning that it must become A-rated and must wait 6 months before applying for HTS again.

New regime from 1 November 2014

As of 1 November 2014, the process when applying for HTS for all sponsors will work as follows:

  • Sponsors will be assessed against the Mandatory requirements:
    • refusal rates (less than 10%)
    • enrolments rates (at least 90%)
    • course completion rates (at least 85%)
  • The requirement for sponsors to have held a Tier 4 sponsor licence for 12 months prior to making the HTS application, and to not have become liable to pay a civil penalty in the three year period immediately before applying for the HTS licence, will remain.
  • If the Mandatory requirements are met, the HTS application will be granted. As mentioned, the Core Measurable requirements, scoring exercise and ‘near miss’ provision will no longer apply.
  • If the Mandatory requirements are not met, the HTS application will not be granted and the sponsor licence will be suspended, unless the sponsor has issued no CAS or less than 50 CAS, in which case it is open to the Home Office to exercise a discretionary assessment. Such an assessment will only apply where 50 CAS or less have been issued in the 12 month period leading up to the HTS application date. The sort of factors that the Home Office will consider include, but are not limited to:
    • Why were the visa applications refused?
    • Why did the students not enrol/complete their course?
    • Is the sponsor complying with its general sponsor duties?
    • Is the sponsor still suitable and eligible to hold a sponsor licence?
    • What is the sponsor’s previous history with the Home Office?
    • Does the sponsor pose any threat to immigration control?

Transitional arrangements

Sponsors can of course apply to renew their HTS licence up to one month in advance. It is therefore important that sponsors are aware of the transitional arrangements in place, particularly for those sponsors whose HTS licence is due for renewal during November 2014, as they may have the option to submit their HTS application prior to 1 November 2014, so that it can be assessed under the current rules (and the more generous 20% refusal rate threshold).

If sponsors apply on or after 1 November 2014, the new changes take effect and the Home Office will measure the refusal rate using CAS used data from 1 August 2014 onwards. Any refusals before this date will be discounted. This is a transitional arrangement in place up to 31 July 2015, after which the sponsor will revert to the usual annual cycle of CAS data assessment. When assessing the refusal rate, the Home Office will not include any students with live appeals against a decision to refuse their Tier 4 application.

Therefore, any sponsors whose licence falls for renewal in the period between 1 November and 30 November 2014, can consider whether it will be more beneficial to submit their application in the month leading up to their renewal date (up to the 31 October 2014), which will allow them to be assessed under the current regime and the higher refusal rate. Alternatively, depending on the individual sponsor’s circumstances, some sponsors may benefit more from an assessment under the new regime, bearing in mind the fact that refusals prior to 1 August 2014 will not be considered.    

The main purpose behind this change to the Guidance is to encourage sponsors to ensure that the right recruitment methods are put in place so that only genuine students are coming over to the UK to study. All sponsors are therefore encouraged to re-visit their pre CAS considerations and monitor any refusals carefully. We can advise further in relation to internal practices, in order to put the sponsor in the best possible position to meet the new HTS 10% refusal rate.