At a time of intense media speculation about student visas, coupled with questions about the financial sustainability of the UK higher education sector due to the perceived over reliance on international student income, corporate partner Rachel Soundy and immigration legal director Tijen Ahmet share their thoughts from a legal perspective.

Both Rachel and Tijen will be at the AULP conference on Thursday 20 June and Friday 21 June. Tijen will be presenting a breakout session on Thursday at 2.30pm on ‘Recruiting international staff: immigration, sponsorship and best practice’.

Tijen, you helpfully reported on this topic in the HE Today in January 2024, can you summarise the key changes the Higher Education sector has seen since then? 


Tijen: I can try! In essence the immigration policy changes announced by the Home Secretary at the end of 2023 to reduce net migration has been implemented effective from 4 April 2024. This means higher salary thresholds for new sponsored workers, a new immigration salary list that replaces the shortage occupation list, with less job roles eligible for discounted salary rates and increases to government fees for both sponsored students and workers. Tough government action from January 2024 means most international students can now no longer bring family members to the UK unless on postgraduate research courses. 

There is some good news in that the Migration Advisory Committee’s rapid review of the Graduate visa published on 14 May 2024 found there is no evidence of widespread abuse of this route and recommended that no changes be made. In other words the Graduate route should be retained in its current form but the government is yet to act and with the General Elections forthcoming the main opposition party has not publicly commented on the review but has said they would retain the ban on student family members. Any restrictions on the Graduate route would no doubt worsen the decline in international student numbers and have significant financial consequences for universities. 


Rachel, a lot of your work focuses on the “front end” of international student recruitment, whether via international student pathway contracts with Universities or academic collaboration arrangements with overseas higher education institutions. What developments are you seeing in 2024? 


Rachel: International student recruitment in terms of both numbers and the diversity of the international student body has been challenging for a number of years now, not just in 2024. What marks 2024 out is that we are now seeing higher education providers raising greater challenges to international student recruiters (across the board, not just pathway providers) about this. What I believe is, in part, driving this is the financial challenges we are seeing in UK higher education. 

We are also seeing an increasing amount of interest from higher education providers, particularly from the smaller / specialist / specialist creative providers, in international student recruitment. Their focus is especially around the post-graduate international student market. In terms of partnership models to support this interest we are witnessing a whole range of different approaches – from direct in-country targeted engagement where higher education providers are, in effect, running their own agent relationships and international student recruitment processes, to the more traditional outsourced model.  

The outturn into Tijen’s work is that there are more higher education providers seeking registration as international student sponsors. 


Thanks Rachel. Tijen, it seems like there is a lot of reputational and regulatory pressures on higher education providers to ensure their UKVI compliance is best in class. Would you agree? If so, what top tips do you have for higher education providers.  


Tijen: Yes, definitely. In an increasingly competitive landscape compliance is key. 

For higher education providers who have become new student sponsors getting it right is imperative. The immigration team at Bevan Brittan provides end-to-end support for a number of clients in this area and regularly conducts compliance audits. For example, we provide practical training that is built on guidance and real life case studies for internal HR and immigration teams. Many of our higher education clients employ foreign workers and skilled workers as well as having international students so having the whole system explained in training and then segmented across student teams and HR teams (depending on who deals with what) via more focused training and support is very helpful. 


OK. What about smaller higher education providers who have one person or a few people dealing with compliance, how can you help them?  


Tijen: We provide a full-range of immigration services that can be utilised as add-on support, but also as ad-hoc support to cover leaves of absence of internal team members, or to fill in for a few months where a client may have a recruitment gap. 

For example, we can advise and support with the drafting and assigning of Certificates of Sponsorship right through to liaising with the UKVI to assist with any queries related to sponsored skilled worker visa applications.


So, to close, what key things should higher education providers be doing to future-proof their international student partnerships and sponsor licence compliance?  


Rachel: we are seeing a definite move towards shorter-term contracts (of all forms) and tighter KPIs. However, this is not just flowing one way – higher education providers are also having more expected of them commercially than was the case a few years ago. 

Tijen: in essence, be prepared. The Home Office / UKVI are conducting an increasing number of onsite compliance inspections with higher education providers so it is imperative that providers are prepared. We are seeing more and more questions about what this compliance really looks like from our clients. No one wants to face enforcement action and penalties in this financial environment so now (more than ever) our clients are wanting assurance that they won’t be on the receiving end of a poor inspection and facing the inevitable negative financial and reputational consequences this will bring. 

For more information about this topic and wider corporate and immigration matters in Higher Education please contact Rachel and Tijen directly.

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