New Tier 4 guidance issued on April 20 from the UK government includes concessions allowing a more flexible approach to the language testing of international students applying for courses below degree level.
The latest guidance says that sponsors who are universities with a “track record of compliance” will be allowed to self-assess students as having a B1 level of English, where progression on to the main course is dependent upon passing their pre-sessional course.
This applies to students who are required to take a SELT overseas but who cannot access a test centre – and also applies to institutions/sponsors who were not able to maintain a “track record of compliance” due to pending registration with the OfS.
This is a temporary concession and institutions must keep records of how they undertook the language level assessment.
The directive – with attendance monitoring rule updates and other detail – was welcomed by members of the UK’s HE sector, including UKCISA and think tank, the Higher Education Policy Institute.
“The education sector is highly compliant, and Tier 4 sponsors take their obligations very seriously,” said Anne Marie Graham, chief executive of UKCISA.
“We have been calling for clearer guidance for both students and sponsors, and this does address many (if not all) of the queries our members and international students have raised with us.
“It provides welcome clarity on sponsor obligations, and on important temporary concessions for English Language testing.”
The Home Office will also not take enforcement action against Tier 4 visa sponsors whose students are long-term absent because of the coronavirus, the government confirmed in the new guidance.
In fact, Covid-19 related absences do not need to be reported and sponsors will not be forced to withdraw sponsorship if a student is unable to attend for more than 60 days.
This absence needs to be the result of Covid-19, and the student must intend to resume their studies.
HEPI director Nick Hillman told The PIE News, “At first glance, this looks sensible and welcome.”
“The Home Office has shifted to a much more flexible approach in recent weeks and these are the sorts of changes that are essential in these odd times if we are to support our education sector and the students it serves.”
Hillman said he doesn’t regard temporary concessions as “excessively lenient”.
“I also hope they will ease the way to a recalibrated future migration regime that better balances the encouragement of educational exports against the need for security than, as a country, we have generally managed to do over the past decade,” he added.
Stephanie Harris, head of international engagement (non-EU) at UUKi, commented: ‘We welcome the government’s message that no one will have a negative outcome through the immigration system due to a circumstance that was beyond their control as a result of Covid-19.”
Given that test centers have been closed worldwide for some time, Harris added, “This [testing rule relaxation] will help to alleviate the pressures on incoming international students who are facing difficulties with English test center closures.”
At the University of Portsmouth, Bobby Mehta, director of UoP Global, said that alternative testing options were a “big topic of discussion” in relevant higher ed communities.
He flagged that any change to testing rules within an institution was not a quick decision: “At the moment, we’re looking at different options,” he told The PIE News.
“Whenever we make any changes like that, they have to go to committees to get approved. You get relevant academic colleagues to look at the tests,” he said.
“So if we see we accept this for entry, that’s for a change to our admissions requirements. So again, that has to go through all the committee structures.”
Other details in the guidance include a note that Tier 4 visa applications can still be made using CAS [Confirmation of Acceptance for Studies unique numbers] that may have expired.
“The start date for the course may now be later than that stated on the CAS for the original course or the CAS may have expired. The Home Office will take a pragmatic approach to consider applications to study courses with significantly different start dates to those stated on CAS or expired CAS,” stated the document.
In terms of visa extension, students whose leave expires between 24 January 2020 and 31 May 2020, who would otherwise be unable to extend in-country, will be able to exceptionally apply for further leave within the UK.
This includes students studying at providers who would otherwise be required to apply from their home country for further leave, such as students at non-Higher Education Providers with a track record of compliance.
To be granted further leave to complete an existing course, or to begin a new course, students must still meet all other requirements of Tier 4, including academic progression and maintenance requirements.
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