On 9 September the government published an update to the Immigration Rules, making changes to the rules governing applications across many of the UK's immigration routes.

The following changes to the Rules - most of which take effect on 1 October 2019 - will be of interest to universities.

Tier 4 (General)

Students with Tier 4 (General) visas studying at a degree level and above will now be able to apply to switch into the Tier 2 (General) category up to three months before the expected end date of their course. Changes are also being made to the conditions of leave under the Tier 4 (General) route to allow such students to start working for their Tier 2 sponsor during that period and after they have applied to switch into Tier 2.

Tier 4 students studying at masters and PhD level will be permitted to start a different course of study with their current sponsor (provided the other requirements for commencing such a course are met). These students will not need to return overseas in order to make an application. One of the reasons for this change is to address instances of doctoral research students changing focus and not being able to obtain leave to complete their course.

Tier 2 (General)

Following the Chancellor's 2019 Spring Statement, from 6 October 2019 PhD level occupations will be exempt from the Tier 2 (General) annual cap of 20,700.

Additionally, under the amended Rules those with PhD level occupations whose absences from the UK are for research which directly relates to their Tier 2 employment will not have those absences counted in an application for settlement ('Indefinite Leave to Remain'). The same rule will also apply to their partners who accompany them in those circumstances.

The Shortage Occupation List, Appendix K of the Immigration Rules, has been updated in line with the Migration Advisory Committee's recommendations in May 2019 to dramatically increase the number of jobs classified as in shortage. Occupations of interest to universities which now feature on the Shortage Occupation List include:

  • biological scientists and biochemists
  • web design and development professionals
  • artists
  • arts officers, producers and directors
  • graphic designers

Following updates to the Tier 2 salary levels in March 2019, the government identified that some of those salary levels were incorrect "due to an issue with the source data used". That error was correct by way of an update to the Tier 2 Policy Guidance and has now been formalised in this latest update to the Immigration Rules.

Start-up and Innovator Categories

The Tier 4 (General) rules will be altered to introduce new conditions to permit students who have submitted an application under the Start-up category which has been supported by an endorsing body to start work on their business activities while their application is under consideration. Additionally, students on the Tier 4 Doctorate Extension Scheme will be exempt from the general requirement that Start-up applicants have not previously established a UK business.

Those universities which are endorsing bodies in the Start-up category should also note that a 'checkpoint' between an applicant and their endorsing body is not required after 24 months (the Start-up category being limited to 24 months in total).

Tier 1 (Exceptional Talent)

Applicants applying under this category must be endorsed by a Designated Competent Body. Three of those Bodies - The Royal Society, The Royal Academy of Engineering and The British Academy - have decided to amend the endorsement criteria by: expanding the list of peer-reviewed fellowships; including applicants who have held a peer-reviewed fellowship in the 12 months prior to the application date; and permitting a wider range of eligible senior academic and research positions to qualify.

Technical Changes

The list of approved English language tests and providers is being removed from Appendix O of the Immigration Rules and will instead be found on the Gov.uk website. Applicants will only be required to provide the unique reference number from their English language tests, rather than the certificate.

The definition of a 'professional sportsperson' under the Immigration Rules is be revised again. The revision will confirm that Tier 4 (General) students studying at a degree level and above can play for or coach sports teams on an amateur basis or as part of a work placement undertaken as an integral and assessed part of their course.

Changes are being made to ensure that Tier 2 migrants who are absent from work due to sickness, statutory parental leave, assisting in a national or international humanitarian or environmental crisis, or engaging in legal strike action will not be penalised by the Immigration Rules as a result of time spent outside the UK or reductions in pay related to those absences.

The Return of the Post-Study Work Visa?

Two days after the changes to the Immigration Rules were published, the government announced that it will be introducing a new 'Graduate Route', allowing international students to stay in the UK for two years after graduating in order to find work. The re-introduction of this immigration category has been welcomed by universities who have been campaigning for such a move ever since the Tier 1 (Post Study Work) category was closed in 2012.

The government's announcement confirms that students will need to "have successfully completed a degree from a trusted UK university or higher education provider which has a proven track record in upholding immigration checks and other rules on studying in the UK" but is light on further details. It has been reported elsewhere however that the new category will be open to international students completing their course in or after summer 2021.