On 16 June 2020, the Government updated its coronavirus (COVID-19) guidance for Tier 4 sponsors and international students.
The updated guidance includes some useful clarifications for those universities, which are currently in the process of sponsoring new international students.
Distance Learning by Tier 4 Students Permitted During 2020/21
As we have reported previously, distance learning courses are not normally suitable for Tier 4 sponsorship, but this restriction has been relaxed in response to the pandemic. Updated guidance issued by UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI) now confirms that this concession will continue throughout the 2020/21 academic year. The guidance confirms that new and returning Tier 4 students who will start or continue studying through distance or blended learning can continue to do so after the summer holidays and throughout the 2020/21 academic year 'provided they intend to transition to face-to-face learning as soon as circumstances allow.'
Tier 4 sponsors are reminded of their attendance monitoring duties and that where students are distance learning, they should be expected to use online contact points, such as logging on to online learning portals and attending online lessons, to monitor attendance wherever possible. Sponsors are also warned that if a student stops engaging with their distance learning, whether overseas or in the UK, their sponsorship must be withdrawn immediately.
Timing CAS Assignment
Many universities will be wondering about whether to assign CAS (Confirmation of Acceptance for Studies) for students joining the university in September 2020, when some of those students might delay their entry to the UK until January 2021 or possibly later. If they have accepted a place at the university and will start studying in September, then our view is that in most cases it will be appropriate to assign the CAS now.
- If an international student plans to join a course in September and then, before they have submitted their visa application, changes their mind and delays their arrival until January, they can still commence their studies remotely. This is because while they are studying outside the UK they do not need a Tier 4 visa. You can add a Sponsor Note to the CAS advising UKVI of the delay to their arrival in the UK and the visa application will be assessed on that basis when it is submitted. A CAS is valid for presentation for a visa application up to 6 months after it has been assigned, so a CAS assigned now can still be used in December.
- If an international student with a September start date on their CAS submits their visa application and then decides to delay their arrival, UKVI's updated guidance confirms that they may still commence their studies remotely. Assuming their visa is approved as normal, their 30-day entry clearance vignette will expire before they are able to travel to the UK, but UKVI has confirmed that anyone who is unable to travel to the UK before their entry clearance vignette expires can contact the Coronavirus Immigration Helpline to request a replacement vignette free of charge. Those replacement vignettes will be valid for 90 days and are available until the end of this calendar year.
- Returning students who require a new CAS (eg. because they are commencing a new course having already completed a course with you) may be concerned about their new Tier 4 visas being issued in time for the start of the new academic year. In most cases, their previous Tier 4 visas will be valid until some point in October or possibly November, in which case they can use their old Tier 4 visas to return to the UK before their current visa expires and then submit in-country applications to extend their stay on the basis of their new CAS. If this is done before the start of term, they will be permitted to commence studying on the basis of the new CAS.
- However, if you know that a student will delay their entry to the UK until later than January 2021, it would be advisable to postpone assigning the CAS until closer to that time.
Will Students Be Required to Self-Isolate on Arrival in the UK?
Since 8 June, most travellers to the UK have been required to complete a form advising where they will be staying; they must then remain at that address for 14 days following their arrival. These requirements will be kept under review and may be watered down or withdrawn altogether in the coming weeks, but it is still possible that students arriving in the UK in August or September will need to self-isolate for 14 days.
Tier 4 visas can be issued with a start date up to one month before the start of the course, which would allow enough time for a 14-day self-isolation period before term starts, but a visa will be issued with a later start date if the applicant puts a later travel date on the visa application form.
Therefore, if you will be asking students to self-isolate away from the university before the start of term, you need to ensure they plan to arrive in the UK in time to do this and give a travel date on the visa application form at least 14 days before the start of term. They may also need to make special arrangements for where they will spend the self-isolation period.
The above reflects guidance as at 22 June 2020. We will continue to update you as the situation develops.
The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.