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COVID-19: Understanding the Latest COVID-19 Guidance for International Students and Sponsors

It is fair to say that since March 2020, and the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have all had much to adjust to. New rules, policies, and guidance have been published by the Government throughout the past few months. Whether in relation to the lockdown restrictions, the job retention scheme, social distancing, or the myriad of other changes, it is important to keep up to date with the latest guidance. This is especially so for international students and sponsors who have been significantly and disproportionately affected by the pandemic. In this article, we will review the latest COVID-19 guidance for international students and sponsors from the UK government.

Latest COVID-19 Concession for International Students in the UK

In April 2020, as the Coronavirus pandemic was really taking hold, the UK Government published a guidance document which a number of temporary concessions in the UK on student and short-term student visas. This document was recent updated in early October. The concessions which international students should be aware of are as follows:

Visa Application Centres (VAC)

While many VACs have reopened worldwide, some are still to open. For this reason, the UK Government has implemented a concession which means if you cannot attend a VAC to apply for a student visa in your home country, you can use another VAC. The guidance says, “Ongoing global restrictions mean some UKVI services will remain closed. Where services are resuming, existing customers will be contacted. Where the VAC in a country remains closed, applicants may be able to make applications from another VAC outside the UK”. The guidance does, however, make it clear that a VAC being closed does not mean that an international student can travel to the UK as a visitor and apply for a student visa.

Expired vignette stickers

In some cases, international students who have been granted a UK student visa, and hence given a vignette sticker allowing them entry into the UK, may have been unable to travel within the 30 days permitted due to COVID-19. The UK Home Office is continuing to provide a concession until the end of 2020 which allows students in this situation to request a free replacement vignette by contacting the UK’s Coronavirus Immigration Help Centre.

Student healthcare workers

International students in the UK who are working for the NHS in one of a number of approved professions will have the restriction to work no more than 20 hours per week waived. The professions which will be exempt from the cap on working hours include biochemists, biological scientists, dental practitioners, health professionals, medical practitioners, medical radiographer, midwives, nurses, occupational therapists, ophthalmologists, paramedics, pharmacists, physiotherapist, podiatrists, psychologists, social workers, speech and language therapists, and therapy professionals.

Applying for a student visa extension if your course has been delayed by COVID-19

An international student whose course has been delayed by coronavirus can apply in-country for a visa extension to complete the course. While those who wish to extend or apply for a new student visa will still need to meet the requirements (including academic progression), the Home Office will exercise its discretion for new study applications that the course should begin no more than 28 days after the student’s permission expires, as long as the new course starts before 31 December 2020.

Latest COVID-19 Guidance for International Student Sponsors in the UK

Like the COVID-19 guidance for students, in March 2020 the Home Office also published advice for all employment and educational sponsors. The main points that educational sponsors should be aware of are:

Relaxing of reporting obligations

Ordinarily, sponsors have a duty to report long student absences. In light of COVID-19, the Government confirmed they will not take enforcement action against educational sponsors if an absence due to the pandemic is not reported. The guidance also says that sponsors are not required to withdraw sponsorship due to COVID-19 if a student is unable to attend for more than 60 days.

Sponsoring a student who is distance learning

On the matter of distance learning, the Government has confirmed the following:

  • Where students are receiving distance learning, they can continue being sponsored, whether they are in the UK or not.
  • Where educational providers are providing distance and blended learning (i.e. face to face and distance learning), they can sponsor an international student as long as the intention is to revert back to predominantly face to face learning when it is possible to do so.
  • Where international students have been granted a student visa and have started distance learning as they have been unable to travel to the UK, their sponsorship does not need to be withdrawn.
  • International students who wish to enrol on a course of study taught by a UK education establishment but delivered wholly by distance learning (with the student being in their home country), there is no need to provide sponsorship as they will not be subject to immigration control.

Allowing a student to commence their studies while waiting for a student visa decision

In some countries, while VACs may be open, they may not be operating to full capacity. If you have offered a place on a course and issued a CAS to an international student and the course has started but they are still waiting for visa approval, they can be given permission to start their studies. This means that the student can enter the UK and later switch to the student visa. The guidance states, “The Home Office will permit new students who are applying to switch into the Student or Child Student routes in the UK to commence study ahead of their application being decided if:

  • They are studying with a Student sponsor other than a zero CAS sponsor
  • The Student sponsor has assigned a CAS
  • The applicant has submitted an in-time application and has provided the sponsor with confirmation of that
  • The applicant has a valid ATAS certificate if required for their course of studies”.

Final Words

It is important for international students and sponsors to keep up to date with the latest Home Office guidance. As the pandemic continues, the new post-Brexit points-based immigration system is rolled out in 2021, and the new Graduate route is introduced around mid-2021, there is much going on. We will keep you up to date with the key events and policy changes affecting students and sponsors as they happen.

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