The Government plans to implement a new immigration system from 1 January 2021. Their proposals, set out in the White Paper: 'The UK's future skills-based immigration system', are subject to consultation.

Education institutions need to understand what is proposed, so they can prepare for the impact these changes will have on their recruitment of international students and staff.

End of EU free movement

As a result of Brexit, EU free movement rights will end by 31 December 2020 at the latest. EU nationals will become subject to the same visa system as other migrants and should expect to face increased bureaucracy before they can study or work in the UK.

Students

EU nationals will not require visas for visits to the UK and, therefore, EU students on short courses of less than six months, for example to learn English, will be able to come and study without applying for a visa in advance. However, those undertaking longer courses at any level will require a visa. As a result many more students will require sponsorship.

Although a large number of institutions already hold a Tier 4 sponsor licence, many more will need to register. The Government wishes to maintain high levels of sponsor compliance but acknowledges the system needs to be more streamlined. A new digital approach is to be designed in consultation with the sector over the next year.

Students will need to demonstrate academic ability, English language skills and funds for fees and maintenance. The White Paper suggests that the 'differentiation' approach, where evidential requirements are relaxed for students from certain countries with a good compliance record, should be continued and the benefits extended to EEA students.

To ensure the UK remains an attractive destination for international students, the Government intends to improve post-study work rights for migrants who complete a degree in the UK. They would be allowed to work for six months post-Bachelors or Masters and 12 months post-PhD. Concessions which facilitate switching to skilled work visas would also be expanded.

Skilled work

The end of free movement also means more employers will require a sponsor licence. Therefore, the Government hopes to broaden, simplify and speed up this visa route. In particular they plan to remove the cap on the number of Tier 2 visas awarded.

Many sponsors are frustrated by the bureaucracy of the resident labour market test. Although this is meant to ensure settled workers are prioritised for vacancies, the reality is that if an employer is determined to recruit a skilled migrant they can usually find a way to do so. Also in many cases even if the role is not deemed to be in national shortage, it may be locally and so running adverts for 28 days is futile. Therefore, the proposal to remove this hurdle is welcomed.

Instead the Government wishes to use cost to deter employers from recruiting migrants. The Immigration Skills Charge will be retained, to incentivise training of local workers rather than paying for migrant workers.

Currently sponsors can only support visas for roles deemed to be skilled to RQF level 6 or above (degree level). The proposal is to lower the minimum skill level to RQF level 3 (A level). On the face of it this will broaden the type and number of roles that can be sponsored.

However, this is tempered by the Government's confirmation that there will be a minimum salary level for sponsorship. The Home Secretary has suggested this should be maintained at £30,000, which rules out even some RQF level 6 jobs, especially outside London and in the public sector. The minimum salary is subject to consultation.

Temporary work

A new temporary short-term work route would allow migrants to do any job (with no minimum skill level or sponsorship required). But they would be limited to 12 months in this category, followed by a 12 month cooling off period. This is to address concerns raised by employers in a wide range of sectors, who are currently reliant on EU nationals to fill lower skilled roles. However, it could also be used by highly skilled migrants.

This is a transitional measure, to give the economy time to adjust to a post-Brexit world. It will be fully reviewed by 2025 and may actually be suspended earlier depending on economic conditions. There would be restrictions on numbers. Visas would be required and application fees are expected to increase incrementally each year.

Furthermore, 'it will only be open to migrants from specified low-risk countries'. So although presented by the Prime Minister as “a system where it is workers’ skills that matter, not which country they come from”, that is not actually the case.

Migrants would be free to move between employers during the year of their visa. This flexibility should help protect them from abuse and encourage competition between employers. However, there would be no right to bring dependants, settle in the UK or access public funds. This may be seen as a way of supressing net migration and reducing the burden on local services. But concerns have been raised that the proposed rules will lead to even greater integration problems and a high turnover of workers could exacerbate problems in some areas.

Youth mobility scheme

The Government wishes to continue the current youth mobility scheme, which allows migrants from designated countries up to age 30 to work freely in the UK for up to two years. More countries could be added to the scheme, for example EU countries. This may help employers fill temporary vacancies for lower skilled work.

Importance of consultation

It is essential that institutions participate in the consultation process, in particular regarding the design of the new digital system for student visas, the minimum salary level for skilled work visas and the maximum duration and cooling off period applicable to temporary work visas. Otherwise there is a risk that promises to soften the rules and simplify processes will have little impact in practice.