Make immigration rules work for universities, expert says

A lawyer with 17 years’ experience advising universities and international students on navigating the United Kingdom’s immigration system has called for special Home Office guidance on visa and immigration policy for the higher education sector.

Speaking at an online conference hosted by the Westminster Higher Education Forum on 8 February on the relationship between the UK immigration system and the higher education sector and the impact of the new points-based system, Rachel Harvey, legal director of Shoosmiths Solicitors, said the Home Office needs to ensure the system supports universities wanting to bring foreign students and staff to the UK.

“I’ve felt for a long time that, along with some other sectors, higher education has specific requirements and specific needs that sometimes cannot be fulfilled by the immigration rules and that it is really important that the Home Office and higher education work more closely to make sure immigration rules are fit-for-purpose so we can continue to attract students and staff to the UK,” said Harvey.

She told the conference that despite the widespread short-term disruption to international student and staff mobility caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2016 referendum on leaving the European Union would have more lasting consequences for those hoping to study or work in the UK.

The most obvious was the “end of free movement as we knew it within the EU” which ceased on 31 December 2020 when the transition period for Brexit came to an end.

“EU and non-EU nationals are now treated in exactly the same way when it comes to living, working and studying in the UK.

“If an EU national has never lived in the UK prior to Brexit they will now need a visa to work or study in the UK and this affects both students and teaching staff.”

New routes via points-based system

However, it is not all bad news as Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union coincided with the UK government introducing a new points-based system, or PBS, which offers “potential new routes which will allow certain staff members to work in the UK, potentially without being sponsored”, as well as changes to the rules for graduates wanting to stay and work in the country after leaving university, said Harvey.

She told the conference: “Since the introduction of the new immigration rules, we have had mostly positive experiences in terms of new applications, speed of decisions and on the technical side with the Home Office trying to introduce new apps and things like that.”

But Harvey warned universities they “have still not felt the full force of Brexit because COVID-19 has meant fewer individuals are moving around the world for study or work”.

She felt the main challenges so far were due to the health emergency, with many students returning home during the pandemic and studying remotely, which may have had an impact on their visa.

Universities have also faced increased responsibility to report changes in the circumstances of their international students and individual skilled workers – and some students and workers have experienced significant delays in processing their visa applications, both within the UK and from outside.

“We know in certain countries, like Brazil, visa application centres were closed so people missed start dates for work and study and, in some cases, individuals got their visa but couldn’t travel because of the pandemic and had to reapply.”

More of a rebrand by Home Office

Harvey described the new points-based system as more of a rebranding by the Home Office and that the main changes are that EU nationals, who previously didn’t have to make formal applications to study in the UK, will now be treated the same as other non-EU international students.

“This could require visits to visa application centres, additional English-language tests and uploading evidence to a portal, and, in most cases, EU nationals not only having to pay their UK visa and immigration fees and NHS fees, but also now [higher] university fees.”

Harvey agreed this could have an impact on whether some people would want to apply to UK universities.

However, she suggested, one good thing to come out of the changes is new opportunities for graduates to stay and work in the UK, “which could make us more attractive to students”.

Scheme attractive to employers

The previous post-study work route was abolished in 2010 and the new scheme introduced in July last year allows students who graduate from a UK university to remain in the UK for two years of valuable work experience.

“This makes them very attractive to employers because they no longer have to sponsor the individual and have the option of switching the individual from the graduate to the skilled-worker route” if they want to retain them for longer by sponsoring them.

Harvey claimed the UK system now offers one of the best routes anywhere in the world for international students wanting to stay and work in the country where they have studied.

“We’re still waiting for the figures to see how many have taken up this route, but a lot of our clients, especially in the tech and care sector, have gone straight to sponsorship [of international graduates] following completion of their degree rather than let the individual go down the graduate route because they are very keen to get those people in.

“They want to sponsor them as soon as they finish their course and support them during the five years they need to get leave to remain [in the UK] rather than go to two years [of the graduate route] and then sponsor them. That’s a real trend we have been seeing recently.”

As for teaching staff, the rules for individuals from the EU who were not resident in the UK before the end of the transition period on 31 December 2020 are now the same as for non-EU staff, so they will require sponsorship in most circumstances to work in the UK.

This means universities must sign a certificate of sponsorship and the individual must apply to a visa centre and meet qualification and English-language criteria.

Fairly quick turnaround time

Harvey told the Westminster Higher Education Forum that, so far, the system is working for most of their clients. “Thankfully, as part of the digital roll-out at the Home Office, there is a really good app for EU nationals that they can use and turnaround time has been fairly quick. We have had from one business day to a maximum of 11 business days.”

But it is not cheap for the universities and individuals they want to employ, with a five-year visa costing £1,408 (US$1,900) and the NHS fees are £624 (US$846) per person per year.

Harvey said a lot of their university clients “have been quite competitive” in terms of trying to bring in individuals and part of their package includes funding those fees rather than losing them to another organisation.

Details of other alternative immigration routes are expected in a couple of months’ time from the UK government, which Harvey suggests could prove attractive to the higher education sector in terms of opening up more global mobility routes.

These include a scale-up route to allow highly skilled and academically elite individuals to come to the UK to start a business and a high potential route for people who have attended an internationally recognised university who want to come to the UK without being sponsored and tied to a specific employer.

“A lot of our student clients, especially at some of our top universities, have started their own scale-up businesses and might want to bring in individuals to grow their businesses,” said Harvey, who added that this should be seen as part of the government’s plan “to bring the brightest and best to the UK”.

There will also be a high potential route, but details from the UK government are “quite sketchy at the moment”, Harvey said.

Nic Mitchell is a UK-based freelance journalist and PR consultant specialising in European and international higher education. He blogs at www.delacourcommunications.com.