Impact of the UK’s post-Brexit immigration system on schools and colleges

12 mins

Posted on 05 Mar 2020

 “Take Back Control!” was the rallying cry of the Pro Leave campaign. The Government’s latest policy statement on the UK’s post-Brexit immigration system, published on 19 February 2020, looks set to honour that promise -  and the education sector will feel the impact. 

The first substantive guidance issued by Boris Johnson’s Government on the immigration landscape from January 2021 focuses mainly on reforms to the sponsored work route. However, the proposed new immigration system will bring an end to free movement for all EU citizens from 1 January 2021. From that date, EU and non-EU citizens will be treated in the same way, including needing some form of visa permission to work or study in the UK. 

Such fundamental changes in the UK’s immigration system will therefore have a significant impact on the UK’s independent schools and colleges. Here is our guide to the key points that schools and colleges need to be aware of, plus how you can prepare for the UK’s post-Brexit visa system.

What are the Key Changes expected from 1 January 2021?

EU nationals will require a visa to study in the UK

The policy statement confirms that international students will continue to be covered by the points-based system as they are currently. It is likely that students will still need to apply for Tier 4 visas. 

However, the proposals represent a significant change for EU students wishing to come to the UK to study on a course starting after 1 January 2021 – they will now need to apply for a study visa in advance.  To apply for this visa, both EU and non-EU students:

  • Will need an offer of study from an approved education institution
  • Should be able to support themselves financially during their studies
  • Should be able to speak English 

As students will need to be sponsored by an approved sponsor licence holder, independent schools and colleges who do not currently hold a Tier 4 sponsor licence and who may want to enrol EU and non-EU students from 1 January 2021 should consider applying now for a licence. 

The study visa requirement will only affect EU nationals whose primary purpose for coming to the UK is to study. For those EU nationals coming to the UK as family dependants (for instance children of EU nationals working in the UK), they will not need to apply for a student visa to enrol at a school or college in the UK. Equally, anyone here by 31 December 2020 who has applied for pre-settled or settled status by 30 June 2021 won’t need a visa.

EU nationals will require a visa to work in the UK

The policy statement describes the new points-based immigration system as ‘employer led.’ From 1 January 2021, the vast majority of both EU and non-EU nationals wanting to move to the UK for work will need a job offer before they arrive and the offer must be from a licensed employer. EU nationals will no longer simply be able to rely solely on their ID card or passport as proof of right to work. 

EU and non-EU citizens wishing to apply for a UK work visa will also need to demonstrate that: 

  • The job offer is at the required skill level (RQF Level 3 – the equivalent of A level study)
  • The role meets the minimum salary threshold (at least £26,500 per year or the going rate for the role if higher)
  • They speak English to a good level

The policy statement confirms that it will abolish the resident labour market test from 1 January 2021. This means that employers will no longer have to advertise a role in two places for a minimum 28-day period before they can offer sponsorship to a foreign worker.

The proposed changes mean that any education institution which may want to hire EU and non-EU staff from 1 January 2021 onwards will need to apply for a Tier 2 sponsorship licence before then, if it doesn’t hold one already. Independent schools and colleges can apply for both a Tier 2 and Tier 4 licence at the same time so that they can hire and enrol EU and non-EU staff and students from January 2021.

What about EU nationals who are already in the UK?

Any EU nationals who are living in the UK by 31 December 2020 should be able to apply for ‘Settled’ or ‘Pre-Settled Status’ under the EU Settlement Scheme. They will need to do this by no later than 30 June 2021 to prove their right to be here. EU nationals and their family members who have been granted Pre-Settled or Settled Status therefore will not need a work or study visa. Those individuals granted status under the EU Settlement Scheme can work and study freely in the UK without sponsorship.

Can schools and colleges sponsor non-UK staff in lower skilled roles?

Probably not. For employers wanting to fill roles that are below RQF level 3, so roles that do not require at least A level qualifications, it is unlikely that sponsoring a non-UK worker will be an option.   The policy paper confirms that the Government will not introduce a visa route for lower skilled workers and is taking a hard-line approach with a determined shift “away from a reliance on cheap labour from Europe”. 

There will be some visa routes for lower skilled workers, though. The Government has said it will retain the youth mobility arrangements in place already, which allow young people from certain countries to live and work in the UK for two years. 

The policy statement also confirms that the Government’s broad approach is to open up other existing ‘Tier 5’ routes to EU citizens. This means that independent schools and colleges, for example, may continue to benefit from various teacher training and cultural exchange programmes through the Tier 5 (Government Authorised Exchange) visa route. Boris Johnson’s Government has also previously published information about initiatives for scientists, graduates and NHS workers to provide UK employers with additional flexibility in the shorter term.  

Schools and colleges that rely on lower-skilled workers from the EU should therefore consider putting contingency plans in place now to mitigate the risk of not being able to recruit staff as easily from 2021. 

Can EU nationals visit the UK without a visa?

The policy statement confirms that from 1 January 2021 EU citizens will be treated as non-visa nationals and so will not need to apply for a visa before entering the UK as visitors. EU nationals will be able to visit the UK for tourism and for some limited purposes for up to six months at a time, in the same way as non-EU nationals. Any non-UK national who is in the UK as a visitor (and so without a work visa) cannot work in the UK and employing them is illegal and could lead to criminal sanctions and/or a civil penalty. 

What about Short Term Student Visas?

The policy statement confirms that EU nationals coming to the UK to study for up to 6 months as a Short Term student will be able to apply for such a visa upon arrival, in the same way that non visa nationals from other countries do now.

What will the visa process involve?

From 1 January 2021, anyone from outside the UK (and Ireland) will need to apply for a visa and pay a fee for this if they want to live, work or study in the UK for longer than 6 months. Non-EU nationals will need to apply for their visas online and attend an appointment in their home country to have their biometrics (fingerprints and photo) taken. 

The policy paper confirms, however, that the application process for EU nationals will be different. EU nationals will: 

  • Be able to apply online using smartphone self-enrolment – they will not need to attend a visa appointment 
  • Fingerprints will not be required
  • Be issued with an e-visa, rather than a biometric residence card or sticker in their passport

In a move away from the White Paper on the Future Skills-Based Immigration System published under Theresa May’s premiership in 2018, any non-UK nationals in the UK as a visitor will need to leave the UK if they want to apply for a UK work visa.

What are the costs implications of the new immigration system?

Firstly, to become an approved sponsor of non-UK students or workers, the Home Office currently charges either:

  • £536 if the organisation is a charity or defined as a small entity
  • £1,476 for medium or large sponsors

Once a sponsor licence application is granted, it is valid for 4 years. 

Secondly, to sponsor a worker or student in the UK, the Home Office currently charges:

  • Certificate of Sponsorship (Worker) - £199
  • Confirmation of Acceptance for Studies (Students) - £21
  • Immigration Skills Charge (Workers only) – currently £364 per year of sponsorship for small or charitable sponsors and £1,000 per year of sponsorship for other sponsors. The policy paper confirms it will continue to levy this Immigration Skills Charge on UK employers to sponsor foreign workers. This will represent a significant new cost for UK employers wishing to hire newly arrived European workers from 2021 

In addition to these fees, visa applicants are also required to pay the visa application fee as well as the Immigration Health Surcharge (IHS). The IHS is currently £300 per year for students/Tier 5 Youth Mobility applicants and £400 per year for workers and other visa categories. The policy statement confirms that both EU and non-EU nationals wishing to work or study in the UK for longer than 6 months will need to pay the IHS fees. Some employers choose to help new hires with these upfront visa costs.

How will the new immigration system affect right to work and right to study checks?

All UK employers, whether or not they are an approved sponsor, have a statutory duty to prevent illegal working. Schools and colleges can continue to accept passports and national identity cards of EU citizens as evidence of their right to work in the UK until 30 June 2021 (the deadline for applying under the EU Settlement Scheme). From 1 July 2021, before you hire someone from outside of the UK and Ireland, you’ll need to see specified evidence of their right to work. 

Tier 4 sponsors have a general sponsor duty to take steps to ensure that every student at their institution has permission to study in the UK throughout the whole period of their study. Although the Government has not yet published any specific guidance on Right to Study Checks from January 2021 onwards, Tier 4 sponsors should be aware that from 1 July 2021, it is likely they will need to obtain specified evidence of the right to study of any enrolled EU students.

What about the Graduate Immigration Route?

There is no mention of the new post study work route in the latest policy statement, probably because there are no plans to implement it before the summer of 2021. The new Graduate Immigration visa route will allow eligible international students studying any subject at a higher education provider to work in the UK, or look for work, for a two-year period following completion of their studies. The Graduate Immigration work visa will also provide UK employers with the flexibility to hire highly skilled international graduates from top UK Universities without the constraints of sponsorship.

Do schools and colleges need to do anything now? 

Yes! We outline below the key steps that you can be taking now to prepare for the UK’s post Brexit visa system.

  • Independent schools and colleges which do not currently hold a sponsor licence should consider applying now to be an approved sponsor

The Government’s latest announcement specifically recommends that employers, “not currently approved by the Home Office to be a sponsor should consider doing so now if they think they will want to sponsor skilled migrants, including from the EU, from early 2021.” 

Sponsor licence applications can take two to eight weeks to process and there will likely be a surge in applications, so if you are thinking about applying for a licence you should do so as soon as possible.

  • Protect your sponsor licence by reviewing current Sponsor Compliance 

It is clear from the Government’s latest policy statement that being an ‘approved sponsor’ will be key to the ability to hire and enrol EU and non-EU staff and students from January 2021 onwards. If your school or college already has a licence then maintaining and protecting this will be more important than ever in post Brexit Britain. For those schools and colleges that currently hold a Home Office sponsor licence, we therefore recommend a thorough review of your current compliance with the sponsor guidance. 

Carrying out a ‘health check’ on compliance with your various record keeping and reporting duties should flag any areas of sponsor compliance risk – and before a sponsor breach is identified by the Home Office. UK Home Office Compliance Officers may visit your education institution with little or no notice to check whether you are complying with your sponsor duties. If they identify any sponsor breaches, your ability to recruit and retain your international staff and students may be adversely affected.

The current proposals therefore look set to bring thousands more workers and students into the sponsorship system. It remains to be seen whether Boris Johnson’s government will honour the promise made in Theresa May’s White Paper to “consider ways in which we can streamline sponsorship and make it more light touch”. 

  • Put contingency plans in place for staff recruitment

Education institutions who rely on EU staff will also need to factor the increased recruitment costs into their budgets from next year, as well as consider starting recruitment earlier to allow time for new recruits to obtain work visas. Payment of the Immigration Skills Charge to employ EU nationals arriving in the UK from January 2021 represents a significant additional recruitment cost.

What next?

The policy paper states that the new visa system will be in force from 1 January 2021, but that key visa routes will be open from as early as autumn 2020 on an optional basis. The Home Office has promised to publish further details in due course, including details about proposed changes to the student immigration route. The current set of proposals are not yet law and so certain points may change as the UK negotiates its future relationship with the EU. 

For schools and colleges concerned about how changes to the immigration landscape will impact them, we hope that the promised “programme of engagement” will take education sector feedback into account before the new Immigration Rules comes into force from January 2021. 

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.

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