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How Will the New UK Student Visa Replacing the Tier 4 Route Work?

As those in the education sector will know all too painfully, 2020 has been a dreadfully difficult year due to COVID-19. Unfortunately, with coronavirus still in the mix, educational establishments serving the international student market will face another hurdle next year after the current Brexit transition period comes to an end. The impact of the ending of free movement, meaning that EU and EEA students will no longer be able to come to the UK without applying for a visa and will not be eligible to pay only ‘home fee’, remains to be seen. It is reasonable to expect, however, a sizeable reduction in EU student numbers in the UK. Indeed, this is already happening, and more non-EU students are arriving.

Many in the education sector will know that the student visa system has undergone a process of review and change in recent months in readiness for 2021. As of 5th October 2020, the Home Office opened a new student visa route to applicants. In this article, we will review the newly opened UK student visa and assess how it has changed compared to the previous Tier 4 student visa.

New International Student Visa Opens “Early”

Back in September 2020, the Home Office announced that the new student visa replacing the outgoing Tier 4 system was nearly ready for business and that it would open to applications on 5th October 2020. The announcement stated:

“New routes for international students to apply for visas will open early delivering on the government’s commitment to introduce a new points-based immigration system.

As detailed in the immigration rules laid in Parliament today (10th September 2020), the Student route and Child Student route will both open on 5th October 2020 to the best and brightest international students from across the globe.

International students play a key part in the government’s agenda to unleash the UK’s potential now that we have left the EU. They make important contributions economically, academically, and financially. We recognise that as a result of coronavirus, some overseas students are choosing to defer their entry onto courses in the UK until the spring semester of 2021. Introducing these new routes now means that students will be able to benefit from the new streamlined process whilst still giving sponsors time to adapt after their autumn intake.

The routes treat all students equally, with international students, including those from Europe coming to study after the transition period ends, using the same, simplified route when it opens for applications”.

As such, the main aim of changing the student visa route was to ensure that it applied to all countries, not just those outside of the EU/EEA. So was this just a re-branding exercise, or is there more to the changes made by the Home Office?

How Has The Student Visa System Changed For 2021?

The first point to mention is that the new system is not a radical overhaul. The two categories of child student visa and student visa (for those over 18) still remain, and students need to be sponsored by a UK educational establishment. As we have already established, EU, EEA, or Swiss students will need to apply for a visa if their course of study starts in 2021.

One change of some significance for immigration law practitioners is the simplification of the student visa system with the introduction of new separate appendices detailing requirements for the visa, as follows:

  • Appendix CS (child student)
  • Appendix ST (Student)
  • Appendix Financial
  • Appendix English language
  • Appendix ATAS

Another change is that if eligibility requirements are not met, applications will simply be rejected (rather than refused). Appendix ST section ST1.7 states, “An application which does not meet all the validity requirements for the Student route is invalid and may be rejected and not considered”. For example, if an applicant does not provide a valid Certificate of Acceptance for Studies (CAS), or if (applying in-country) they apply to switch from an ineligible visa category, their application will be invalidated and a refund given. This may cause problems for in-country applicants whose immigration status would ordinarily be protected by statutory leave while their application is being considered, and may result in them being an over-stayer. This does mean, however, that rather than having their application refused and application fee retained by the Home Office, those who do not meet the requirements will receive a refund.

Switching in-country into a student visa will now become easier under the new system. This is because rather than listing visas which you can switch from, the rules now only state which visas you can’t switch from, thereby widening the switching options. The rules say that those on the following visa types cannot switch to a student visa:

  • a visit visa
  • a short-term student visa
  • a Parent of a Child Student visa
  • a seasonal worker visa
  • a domestic worker in a private household visa
  • leave outside the immigration rules

It is notable that those on a short-term student visa are now unable to apply for a student visa while in the UK.

In terms of changes to the maintenance requirements, the new rules mean that in-country student visa applicants who have already been in the UK for 12 months or more and are applying to extend their stay, will automatically be assumed to be meeting the financial criteria.

Final Words

In the context of COVID-19, having to deal with a radically different student visa system would have been highly undesirable. As things are, anyone familiar with the Tier 4 student visa rules, whether as a student or from the perspective of an educational establishment will likely not be too phased by these changes.

The simplification of the immigration rules for students will hopefully be warmly welcomed as this will make the interpretation and application of the new rules more straightforward, especially for practitioners. We will keep you updated with any further news on the UK’s new student immigration system in the coming months. For legal assistance with your student visa application, kindly speak to one of our experienced immigration lawyers.


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