New Home Office Tier 4 Guidance on Covid-19 for Independent Schools and Colleges
Tier 4 sponsors first welcomed Covid-19 immigration guidance from the Home Office at the beginning of March 2020. At that stage, the guidance only related to Chinese nationals. However, with the subsequent rapid spread of the coronavirus globally, the implications for UK immigration soon extended to all nationalities.
With some visa centres throughout the world still temporarily closed, countries in partial lockdown and tight travel restrictions and quarantine rules in place, the Home Office recently updated the consolidated version of its Covid-19 guidance (Covid-19 Guidance) specifically aimed at Tier 4 sponsors and Tier 4 student visa holders. The temporary concessions cover the entire international student journey, from visa application stage (both in the UK and overseas) and sponsor record keeping to permissible methods of learning, attendance monitoring and reporting.
Anna Blackden, an immigration specialist in Doyle Clayton’s Education Team, summarises the key areas of Home Office’s response to the outbreak of Covid-19 – and gives best practice advice for independent schools and colleges holding Tier 4 sponsor licences to help ensure they benefit from the temporary concessions.
Educational Oversight – pragmatic approach to unavoidable delays in inspections
All Tier 4 sponsors are required to maintain Educational Oversight throughout their 4-year licence cycle. For example, independent schools must either achieve ‘Met’ from the ISI or a ‘Good’ or ‘Outstanding’ in an Ofsted inspection to maintain their sponsor licence.
However, inspection cycles are being affected and potentially delayed by restrictions on physical inspections. The Home Office has confirmed it will take a pragmatic approach to unavoidable delays in inspections caused by Covid-19 and allow inspection bodies to use other inspection methods, such as virtual meetings or desk-based inspections. The Covid-19 Guidance confirms that it will not reduce a sponsor’s Confirmation of Acceptance for Studies (CAS) allocation to zero due to Educational Oversight delays.
We recommend sponsors keep a record of any communications from their Educational Oversight body about cancelled or delayed inspections or the use of other inspection methods.
Basic Compliance Assessments – no adverse effect where students withdraw for Covid-19 related reasons
A Tier 4 sponsor must apply for a Basic Compliance Assessment (BCA) every 12 months to retain its sponsor licence. The Covid-19 Guidance confirms that students who withdraw from their studies as a result of Covid-19 will be discounted from a sponsor’s data in future BCAs. Sponsors must notify the Home Office of the reason for withdrawal and keep their own records for such students.
We recommend sponsors retain records to evidence that a student has withdrawn for Covid-19 related reasons (e.g. medical evidence, email correspondence with student).
Tier 4 Sponsored Students U18 – duty of care continues during Covid-19 pandemic
Any Tier 4 sponsor which is currently sponsoring a student aged under 18 has a continuing duty of care while the child remains under its sponsorship and is in the UK - even if they have stopped studying.
Such safeguarding duties mean that sponsors of child students must continue to ensure suitable care arrangements are in place for them if they remain in the UK during the Covid-19 pandemic, even if they are not attending classes. Sponsors should keep a detailed record of the student’s UK address and UK care arrangements, including details of those responsible for their care in the UK during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Distance Learning – sponsored students temporarily allowed to undertake distance learning
In a significant departure from the current Tier 4 sponsor guidance, sponsors can continue to sponsor students who are continuing their studies through distance learning. It does not matter whether those students are physically in the UK or overseas. Undertaking distance learning does not need to be reported as a change of circumstances.
The Covid-19 Guidance was further updated on 16 June 2020 to also confirm that Tier 4 sponsors can now sponsor new students who will start studying through distance or blended learning for the 2020-2021 academic year. This is provided that the student will transition to face to face learning as soon as circumstances allow. This concession will remain in place until the end of the 2020-2021 academic year.
We recommend sponsors keep a record of all sponsored students undertaking distance learning and the relevant course details.
Attendance Monitoring – relaxation of monitoring and no enforcement action against sponsors for Covid-19 related absence
Tier 4 students who cannot meet the requirements for recording physical contact points due to moving to distance learning, or who are absent from classrooms as a result of Covid-19 related illness or travel, do not need to be reported for missing expected contact points.
The Covid-19 Guidance also confirms that, where possible, Tier 4 sponsors should use expected online contact points such as logging into online learning portals, attending virtual classes and online work submission to monitor attendance. The Covid-19 Guidance confirms the Home Office will not take action against sponsors who are unable to monitor online contact points due to practical or technical limitations.
Sponsors are not required to withdraw sponsorship where students are absent from studies, including online studies, for Covid-19 related reasons. This includes where a sponsored student is unable to attend for more than 60 days due to Covid-19 but intends to resume their studies.
We recommend sponsors prepare a Covid-19 Attendance Monitoring Policy, defining ‘expected contact points’ where sponsored students are engaging in online learning. Sponsored students should be made aware of their attendance obligations during the Covid-19 pandemic and sponsors should keep an effective record of a sponsored student’s attendance. Sponsors should also keep a record of reasons why a sponsored student is not engaging in online studies and retain evidence where student absence is Covid-19 related (e.g. email correspondence/medical evidence).
Original Documents – relaxation of Appendix D record keeping requirements
Tier 4 sponsors are required to see certain original documents to comply with their record keeping duties, as set out in Appendix D of the Immigration Rules. Where it is no longer practical or safe for a student to submit these documents in person, or where schools and colleges are closed due to social distancing measures, the Covid-19 Guidance confirms it is acceptable for a digital copy, such as a photograph, to be provided and kept on file.
Sponsors should continue to comply with their adapted record keeping duties by obtaining electronic copies of Appendix D documents, such as a Tier 4 student’s passport, 30 day visa vignette, BRP and educational qualifications.
Likewise, the Covid-19 Guidance confirms a relaxation of the usual Right to Work checks that education providers must carry out to confirm that all staff are allowed to work in the UK. The Covid-19 Guidance confirms employers are not required to see original documents and can undertake checks via video calls. Prospective workers can submit scanned documents, rather than originals, to show that they have the right to work. Once the temporary concessions end, independent schools and colleges will be expected to carry out the full checks on any staff recruited during the pandemic within eight weeks.
There are also other concessions relating to commencing studies in the UK after applying to switch to a Tier 4 visa (and before that application is decided). Student visa applicants may also apply for a Tier 4 visa using CAS that were previously issued (e.g. where the CAS has expired or the course start date has passed). The Covid-19 Guidance also includes temporary suspension of the usual police registration requirements for students aged 16 or over who are nationals of certain countries.
They think it’s all over….
The Covid-19 Guidance makes it clear that the concessions will be kept under regular review and will be withdrawn once the situation returns to normal. Sponsors should therefore ensure that all record keeping during this period is dated accurately so that any action taken can be effectively linked to Covid-19. This will help protect a sponsor in the event of subsequent Home Office enforcement action.
The Home Office has taken a pragmatic and necessary approach to support Tier 4 sponsors and international students during an unprecedented time, relaxing or removing many of the usual sponsorship duties and Tier 4 visa requirements. It is clearly in the UK’s interests to help the country maintain its position as a first choice study destination in a competitive – and highly lucrative - international student market.
The articles published on this website, current at the date of publication, are for reference purposes only. They do not constitute legal advice and should not be relied upon as such. Specific legal advice about your own circumstances should always be sought separately before taking any action.