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March 13, 2024

Immigration considerations and support for further education colleges

Immigration considerations and support for further education colleges

Date updated:
Immigration considerations and support for further education colleges

International students are hugely important to the UK economy, delivering a net benefit of £41.9 billion per year (or £1 million per 11 international students) and making each British citizen £560 better off[1]. International students’ positive spending effect is felt locally throughout the UK, in our Higher and Further Education institutions and in the communities they serve. In return, international students seek and largely receive an excellent UK education, as well access to the UK labour market in the short and potentially longer term. 

This suggests there is a significant opportunity for FE colleges to licence as sponsors and actively recruit international students.  FE colleges could benefit from the international student market in the same way as HE institutions have done, developing a student body enriched by diversity, at the same time as securing a reliable income stream to build the overall financial resilience of the institution. Market research and planning is essential for any FE college considering growing their international student body. There are also key differences in course type and in student demographics and needs in further education versus high education that must be considered carefully. While FE colleges may follow the same international student recruitment trends as the HE sector, and draw applicants from the same countries, lesser-represented countries such as Korea or Poland could be more suitable for your institution and the particular courses you are keen to promote. 

 (1)    International students’ positive spending effect – link here

The UK immigration system for students works on a sponsorship model, whereby the education provider acts as a sponsor to the student visa holder, issuing a Confirmation of Acceptance for Study (CAS) as the key document to support a visa application. To achieve sponsor status, the education provider must submit a raft of documentation as part of an initial sponsor licence application and undergo close scrutiny of existing governance and regulatory information at institutional level, as well as course specific information. There will also be a rigorous Home Office audit and inspection of recruitment, admissions, enrolment, right to study, safeguarding, engagement and examination processes.  The Home Office must be assured of the institution’s ability to manage the licence responsibly and be functionally able to uphold sponsor record keeping and reporting duties. Once granted, the Home Office continue to undertake an annual compliance assessment looking at visa refusal rates and other data, and expect sponsors to stringently uphold immigration laws.

While the higher education sector has been operating under the sponsor management system for some years, FE colleges are far less likely to have chosen to undergone a sponsor licencing process.  Those that have done so tend to also be providers of higher education courses at Level 4, 5 or typically Level 6, delivered to students who are 18 or over. We now see an opportunity for FE colleges to licence to deliver Level 3 courses including to students who are 16 and 17, provided the Home Office can be satisfied of 15 hours a week organised day time study leading an approved qualification and close attention to this more vulnerable student group.

FE colleges who are considering making a sponsor licence application may be interested in some of the challenges we have helped clients resolve with the Home Office including:

  • issues with international student recruitment agencies overseas, providing inaccurate or illegal information;  

  • lack of understanding of new and hybrid courses within FE, particularly where technical or vocational or industry-led courses with work experience elements combining with traditional teacher-led study;

  • lack of understanding of accreditation and delivery models within FE;

  • functional challenge of managing international students within existing college systems for admissions, enrolment, assessment etc; and

  • managerial risk and challenges due to turnover, scale and multi-site operations.

We recently assisted The Sheffield College, a leading FE college with five campus location, to obtain an A-rated sponsor licence to sponsor students across three of its five city-centre sites. The Sheffield College saw the sponsor licence as a strategic investment, having identified interest and a growth market outside the UK for their innovative sports and vocational courses. We supported the college with an audit to identify any areas for further development within their existing operations ahead of their Home Office visit.  

They looked top to bottom at their organisation to ensure student sponsorship is managed in a safe and compliant way, understanding that the Home Office view sponsorship as a responsibility not just a right.  We were delighted to secure their sponsor licence to cover further education as well as higher education courses.

Where FE colleges do admit international students they should be conscious of the heightened levels of pastoral support that may be required to ensure engagement and successful qualification. The additional social, cultural and even environmental adjustments required of international students arriving in the UK for the first time – particularly those under 18 – are significant. Colleges should consider how they will provide this additional layer of support and how this will be signposted to the international students.

International students have an immediate need for visa support and advice prior to arrival in the UK. Given that visa approval rates are a key part of the Basic Compliance Assessment, it is in the College’s interest to provide guidance where possible. There are obvious risks in visa advice being left in the hands of ill-informed agents. Colleges should consider establishing their own resources, advice lines and referral networks to pass students and their families to qualified UK immigration lawyers, where required. 

International students are also likely to have a number of questions on arrival relating to their eligibility to work in the UK, whether reliant on income from work or simply wishing to gain experience of the UK workforce. The UK government is committed to driving down immigration figures. Despite the net contribution of international students, and we are seeing ever greater scrutiny of right-to-work practices particularly in lower skilled roles, as well as review of the Graduate visa route and reduction of the number of roles eligible for Skilled Worker sponsorship. 

Student visa holders on courses below degree level are able to work for 10 hours a week during term time, and full-time during holidays. Student visa holders on courses at degree level or above are able to work for 20 hours a week during term time, and full-time during holidays. Students cannot work if sponsored by publicly funded college or embedded colleges offering pathway course without a track record. These rules are not well known amongst either students or necessarily employers, creating an obvious immigration risk and potential for abuse. 

There are also likely to be questions about dependant visas and dependant working.  Dependants have previously full access to the UK labour market and could work in any role for any employer without sponsorship, often being responsible for supporting their International student partner.  However, from January 2024 only students enrolled on specific postgraduate courses categorised as research programmes (including PhDs, other doctoral qualifications, or master's programmes that involve research and the creation of original work) will be eligible to bring dependants. FE Colleges should nevertheless be prepared to answer questions on the topic as changes take place. 

FE colleges, whether choosing to sponsor international students or not, also face considerable immigration compliance risk in their role as Employers.   

FE colleges should have thorough Right to Work processes in place for all employees, which account for recent changes to the in-person v. digital check options.  From February 2024 the potential civil penalty for failing to establish the right to work has been trebled to £45,000 per worker for a first offence and £60,000 thereafter, with the intention of increased enforcement activity.  This increasing level of financial risk is particularly relevant in FE where patterns of agency, temporary and hybrid working are standard, and where staff turnover can be considerable. 

Challenges with recruitment into FE mean it is increasingly necessary to sponsor Skilled Worker candidates to fill vacancies.  An employer sponsor licence is therefore an important asset for any FE college, and should be managed carefully with close attention to compliance duties over the term of sponsored employment. Changes and salary increases to the Skilled Worker scheme planned from April 2024 should exempt education roles.

International activity is a cornerstone of the UK higher education sector, and as FE organisations compete, they are also developing sustainable relationships with international institutes, researchers, students and partners.  It is essential that FE Colleges are aware of the UK immigration rules on visiting versus working within the academic and educational context, as well as the roll out of electronic authorisations in post-Brexit Europe.

Stone King enjoys a stellar reputation for UK education law, with a strong national education practice comprising 80 passionate and talented specialist lawyers and a client base that spans the sector. We act for state schools, independent schools, as well as international schools based outside the UK. We are proud to have a dedicated Further Education team, headed by Tom Morrison and Ciara Campfield, which has deep knowledge of the nuance of the sector.  They act for several of the largest FE College groups currently serving the UK, across the full range of commercial and operational issues. 

We believe in the impact of Further Education, and its economic potential, and position ourselves as trusted advisors to your senior leadership team. Our Further Education team draws together specialist lawyers from across all relevant disciplines – from corporate and commercial, to data protection, to employment and to immigration – to ensure that legal advice is truly coordinated and synthesised to FE client needs.

Immigration law is an ever-changing area that often merits your recruitment and HR teams being given access to specialised support. The government has a clear policy to reduce net migration, create a hostile environment for illegal working and ensure that the student route is not abused as a route into work. FE colleges face a genuine compliance risk across both employees and student body that requires far closer management than has historically been necessary.  We have created this guide to outline some of the general and particular challenges, but also the opportunities faced by FE colleges. 

Please contact us for specialist, not generalist, support with:

  • sponsor licence applications for Student and/or Worker sponsorship

  • compliance audits to cover right to work and right to study practice and sponsor duties

  • a suite of immigration policies and training packages

  • immigration ad hoc support and advice for FE colleges