From 1 November 2014 Universities, Colleges and Schools who wish to offer places to international students will have to face tough new rules in relation to sponsoring them.
The most significant change relates to the number of visa refusals any institution can have while maintaining "Highly Trusted Sponsor Status" (which allows them to sponsor new international students). Previously if 20% of the individuals offered places had their visa applications refused, the intuition's licence could be suspended. That figure is now 10%.
This figure applies to all institutions, although there are some concessions for institutions who issue less than 50 places to international students. For those small institutions a refusal rate of 10% will not lead to an automatic suspension, but the Home Office will have a discretionary power to take action.
Regardless of size, there are steps that can be taken by institutions to protect themselves and minimise the risk of refusals of visa applications:
1. Consider the visa requirements early
The simplest way to minimise risk is to consider the visa requirements at an early stage. Sponsors should always ask themselves: "Does the applicant have sufficient English language qualifications and will the course meet the requirements for sponsorship?" before they issue a Confirmation of Acceptance for Studies ("CAS").
If there is any doubt the sponsor may wish to get external advice (see step 3).
2. Review the information provided to students
If a sponsor provides any information to students about the requirements for their visa application, the sponsor should review this to ensure it is up to date.
Sponsors should also make sure any information they provide is clear and easily understood. The Immigration Rules contain very strict requirements about the format of documents and the evidence that must be provided in support of the application. In our experience, a large number of student visa refusals are because of these requirements not being met.
The risk of refusals on technicalities can be easily minimised through the provision of clear advice. Likewise, if an institution has information on its website, it is important that this is updated on a regular basis.
3. Consider getting expert help
Whilst many institutions have their own team of expert international student advisers who can assist with immigration applications not all can afford this luxury. Immigration law is an area which changes on a very regular basis; if someone is not dealing with it on a very regular basis, it is possible that important changes may be missed
Some institutions will want to consider whether they refer students to a specialist adviser to assist with their applications and ensure that all the requirements are met.
4. Carry out an audit
A Sponsor who issues less than 50 CAS' per year will not automatically face the loss of its licence if it has a 10% refusal rate. It will, instead, be considered under a discretionary assessment.
When making a discretionary assessment, the Home Office will consider a number of factors including why a visa was refused and whether the institution is complying with its general sponsor obligations. An audit allows an institution to address issues together with ensuring compliance.
For larger sponsors, an audit carried out by professional advisers will be useful when making representations to the Home Office, in the event that a problem arises due to the number of refusals received. If the sponsor can demonstrate that it has robust procedures in place and it is complying with its sponsor duties it may be possible to persuade the Home Office to reinstate its sponsor licence.
5. Monitor refusal rates
It is essential that institutions monitor the number of CAS' issued together with the number of refusals so they are aware when they are reaching their limit. It is recommended that a record of the reasons for any refusals is kept as this will help to identify where more information is needed by students. This will also assist representations need to be made to the Home Office.
What to do if there is a problem?
In the event that an institution reaches the 10% refusal limit and the Home Office takes action, it is essential that the institution seeks legal advice. An institution will only have 20 working days to make representations to the Home Office following a licence suspension and it may be possible to persuade them to re-instate the licence.
If you would like further information on these changes and what you can do to minimise the risk to your sponsor status please contact.