One of the many unknowns of the Brexit vote is its impact on the recruitment of international students by independent schools. British education is a global export and independent schools can expect to continue to attract pupils the world over, particularly in a post-Brexit environment of devalued sterling.
But regulation of overseas recruitment is notoriously complex and fickle, subject to seemingly random and multiple changes as UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI) constantly change the ground rules.
We have been helping schools navigate the minefield of Tier 4 compliance ever since the introduction of the points based system in 2009 and we see the same mistakes made repeatedly. So below are our top five tips for international student recruitment and Tier 4 compliance. Who knows, post-Brexit it is possible that EU students may soon need Tier 4 visas too.
Be clear about who is responsible for Tier 4 within the school and invest in training for them
Whilst very few schools will need an FTE whose sole job is Tier 4 sponsor and visa compliance, all schools with a Tier 4 licence will need one or more member(s) of staff taking responsibility and ownership for Tier 4 compliance.
Don't expect your staff to muddle through on their own. We run termly training sessions, and other high quality training is available through British Boarding Schools Workshop events.
And however much schools complain that they are educators, not border police, when it comes to Tier 4 this is exactly the role that schools perform. As a judge commented recently: "It should not be forgotten that colleges are performing functions which used to be undertaken by entry clearance officers or other [UKVI] officials." So the standards expected by UKVI are high.
Don't make common but potentially costly mistakes
All of the following are potentially terminal in relation to the school's Tier 4 licence, but easily avoided:
Failing to report a change of ownership of the school. We are currently working with a school threatened with licence revocation for failure to report a change of ownership several years ago.
Sharing log-in details or passwords for the Sponsor Management System (SMS). On a recent visit to a school in preparation for a UKVI compliance inspection, the first thing we spotted was that all the school's SMS details were inked on the inside cover of a lever arched file containing Tier 4 pupil details.
Failing to report non-enrolment of pupils who are refused visas. It seems somewhat counter-intuitive that, after UKVI has declined a visa to a pupil, the school still needs to report the pupil's failure to enrol. But an FE college had its Tier 4 licence revoked on this ground.
Sweat the small stuff
Whilst the following mistakes are unlikely to be fatal for a school's Tier 4 licence, they are very prevalent across the sector.
Keep a copy of the parent's consent letter on the pupil's file. This is a requirement for children but easily overlooked since it doesn't appear in the list of documents which are required to be retained by schools, Appendix D to the Sponsor Guidance.
Provide details of agents, in the UK or abroad, who have helped you to recruit pupils. This has been a requirement since 2009 but very few schools are making regular reports to UKVI of agents who have been involved in international pupil recruitment.
Don't issue a Confirmation of Acceptance of Studies (CAS) for combined GCSE and A-level study. Again, this has never been allowed - the rule is one CAS per course, and UKVI regards GCSEs and A-levels as separate courses. But some senior schools are still wasting their CAS - and ramping up their visa refusal rate - by ignoring this requirement.
Matthew Burgess: "However much schools complain that they are educators, not border police, when it comes to Tier 4 this is exactly the role that schools perform"
Be aware that UKVI expects your school to take steps to interrogate the immigration/visa status of all your pupils in appropriate circumstances, not just those you are sponsoring under Tier 4
The vast majority of your pupils will not need any explicit immigration permission to study at your school. But some will, and you should be ready to explain to UKVI how you satisfy yourself that all pupils are properly in the UK - and prepared to take action if necessary. So, for example:
Do you specifically ask overseas applicants whether they need you to sponsor them under Tier 4?
Do you ask for sight (and copies) of dependent visas or other non-Tier 4 visas?
Does your parent contract allow you to terminate the contract if it transpires that the pupil is not lawfully able to remain in the UK?
Do you take express Data Protection Act permissions to share information about pupils and parents with UKVI and the Home Office?
Control what you can when it comes to Basic Compliance Assessment metrics
The visa refusal rate means, in practice, that any school assigning 20 CAS each year can only afford to have one visa refusal. So eliminating errors, both by your staff in issuing the CAS and by pupils/parents, is vital. We have developed guidance packs which schools are increasingly using to help pupils make compliant visa applications, and which assist the school if it needs to make representations to UKVI that they should exercise their discretion in renewing the school's Tier 4 Sponsor Status annually.
Simple steps that schools can take include:
Asking pupils to complete an immigration history form prior to assigning the CAS. Pupils will have to answer these questions in any event when applying for their visa, and it's better for the school to know in advance if a pupil is unlikely to obtain a visa due to problems with their immigration history.
Asking to review bank statements prior to submission. Problems with demonstrating adequate funds is one of the most common reasons for visa refusals and whilst it does require some investment of resource up front by schools in screening bank statements (or asking us to do it for you), it also minimises the risk of visa refusals.
Where pupils will not be boarders, reviewing the proposed residential arrangements and notifying the Local Authority where private fostering is involved. For day pupils under 16, the options for their living arrangements are limited and many visas are refused because of a failure to understand what UKVI will permit.