Independent schools with international pupils on roll are now required to have a more active involvement in immigration administration. Mark Blois and Helen Rideout discuss

The Government recognises the value of students from abroad to our culture and economy
— in June 1999 it launched an initiative to encourage students to come to the UK. Each year international students are a significant source of income, bringing in approximately £2.5 billion to the UK economy in tuition fees alone, and an overall estimated contribution of £8.5 billion. 

Almost all independent schools will have students from abroad —  boarding schools, in particular, are likely to have a good number. Independents favour international recruiting because such students provide much-needed income. But from January 2009, the Government will require independents to take a more active role in immigration administration.

This article will look at the Government’s new points-based system for allowing international students to come and study in the UK. This system shares responsibility for immigration administration between the UK Border Agency and the education provider itself.

A question of resources

Why is the Government changing the way in which international students come to the UK to study? Because a lack of resources has led to abuse of the system.

There are about 240,000 non-EU students studying in the UK. These students make up 14 per cent of the full-time student population and 43 per cent of those at post-graduate level.

Previous attempts to crack down on abuse of the immigration system for students have been hampered by lack of resources.

For example, in January this year it emerged that of the 2,000 institutions on the Register of Education Training Providers operated by the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, only 256 had been inspected since 2005. Of these 256, 124 of them were struck off the register.

The changes are, therefore, part of the Government’s restructuring of the UK’s immigration rules. They have at their heart a system of shared sponsorship.

Shared responsibility

The new points-based system aims to share the responsibility for international students (those from outside the European Economic Area and Switzerland) between the UK Border Agency and the education provider itself. 

In support, higher education minister Bill Rammell said ‘I welcome the education sector’s involvement in the developing structure that allows international students to benefit from the excellent educational experience the UK offers, while giving them the opportunity to work in the UK for two years following graduation.

‘However, I will not tolerate the minority of individuals who seek to damage the quality of our education system through bogus colleges. This is why we have introduced tighter checks to the current Register of Education Training Providers. The new system will toughen this process further and give extra protection from the damage bogus colleges can cause.’

The points-based system

The new points-based system will condense over 80 routes of entry to the UK into a system made up of five tiers:

Tier 1: migrants with desirable professional skills
Tier 2: skilled workers with an offer of employment
Tier 3: temporary unskilled workers
Tier 4: students
Tier 5: youth mobility schemes, temporary workers

The new system mirrors those already in place in other countries such as Australia, New Zealand and Canada.

Tier 1 of the system was launched on 29 February 2008. The remaining tiers are being phased in through 2008-09, and indications are that Tier 4 — students — will be up and running by January 2009.

All students now studying in the UK will be able to complete their course, but education providers will need to be ready for the new student intake
in 2009.

Tier 4: students

Tier 4 has been introduced to bring in tighter rules for international students. But the points-based system is underpinned by a sponsorship system, so Tier 4 also brings with it greater responsibilities for the educational institution themselves.

Four steps to sponsorship

To sponsor an international student, the educational institution needs to go through four steps:

  • accreditation
  • registration as a sponsor on the sponsorship register
  • identification of key personnel to manage the institution’s system
  • issuing a certificate of sponsorship to a prospective student

An educational institution can issue a certificate to a student who shows a track record in education and who is applying for a course that meets the minimum qualification.

It is important to note that Tier 4 has not been designed as a route to settled status in the UK, nor does it provide an opportunity to apply for indefinite leave to remain in the UK or permanent residency. A Tier 4 visa is a temporary visa designed with a specific purpose in mind, and it replaces the UK student visa service.


Each step under the new system promotes the aims of the new immigration system for students. The system aims to help identify phoney educational systems that are set up to offer places to ‘students’ purely to facilitate an entry to the UK, and to protect genuine students caught up in these fictitious colleges.

‘Education provider’
Before an educational institution can become a sponsor it must be able to demonstrate that it is a bona fide education provider. This is achieved by having in place some form of accreditation from an external independent body.

For most schools and colleges this will not cause any difficulty, as a successful inspection will already be in place.

Other institutions will need to obtain accreditation before proceeding to the next stage.

Publicly funded institutions are already required to submit to the system of inspections conducted by Ofsted (incorporating the former Adult Learning Inspectorate) and the Quality Assurance Agency. As these already provide assurance that the institution is a genuine provider of education, it will not be required to undergo any additional accreditation.

Independent schools must by law already be registered with the DCSF following a successful inspection by either the Independent Schools Inspectorate or Ofsted and will not require any additional accreditation.

Other private sector institutions, if not already registered with the DCSF, must seek accreditation from Ofsted, the Accreditation Service for International Colleges (ASIC), Accreditation UK, or the British Accreditation Council (BAC). The inspection regime and pricing structure for the approved accreditation schemes can be found on the UK Border Agency’s website. The average cost will be about £4,000 for four years.

Registration and key personnel

Once an institution has proof of accreditation, such as an Ofsted inspection, it can apply to the UK Border Agency for a licence to become a registered sponsor. The register will replace the current Register of Education Training Providers.

The process is an online application and needs to be followed with the appropriate paperwork and fee (up to £400) to the UK Border Agency within 10 working days.

Tips on making the application
The agency’s website gives a number of tips for checking the application, as the fee is payable on application, not on a successful outcome:

Are you grouping all your campuses together under one application?Are your responsibilities allocated to the correct personnel (see key personnel below)? How many certificates of sponsorship do you expect to issue each year?Do you have sufficient human resources in place to comply with your sponsorship duties?Do you already employ migrant workers? Are their permits up to date?

Have you already been penalised for non-compliance?

A successful applicant will be placed on the sponsorship register and issued with either an A or B-rated licence, depending on the strength of its application. The B-rated licence is only a temporary ranking. You must comply with a timed action plan to upgrade to an A-rated licence. An unsuccessful applicant has no right of appeal but can re-apply at any time.

Four key personnel
Given the increase in responsibilities, an educational institution will need to be well organised to comply with the new system.

The educational institution must identify four key personnel: the authorising officer, level 1 user, level 2 user and the key contact. The same person can fill these roles, or up to four people can share them. Once on the register an institution can appoint additional level 1 and level 2 users to share the work.

The authorising officer is responsible for the actions of all users in an establishment so numbers should be kept to a manageable level.

Your legal representative
A fifth role, outside the application but still important, is the education provider’s legal representative. S/he can be appointed to all but the authorising officer’s role above, and can advise the institution on its responsibilities when issuing a certificate of sponsorship.
The system will be an online system provided by the UK Border Agency. Access is dependent on the above roles.

Certificate of sponsorship

When an institution is up and running, a prospective student will require a certificate of sponsorship to support the Tier 4 application. This is a virtual document and consists of a unique reference number.

The two visa categories under which certificates can be issued are:

  • Child student: this will enable children between the ages of four and 16 to continue to come to the UK to be educated at an independent school
  • General student: for all those wishing to come to the UK for their post-16 education

In providing these certificates, the institution assumes certain responsibilities. In summary, these are:

Record-keeping: each sponsor must keep copies of each migrant’s passport or UK immigration status documents, together with up-to-date contact details, to ensure that it is in a position to cooperate with the UK Border Agency.

Reporting duties: sponsors must report to the UK Border Agency if:

  • the sponsored migrant does not turn up for study
  • s/he is absent for more than 10 expected contact days without reasonable permission
  • the course of study ends
  • the sponsor stops sponsoring the student
  • there are any significant changes in student or sponsor’s circumstances
  • the sponsor suspects that the student is breaching his or her conditions of leave

Compliance with the law: the student must be lawfully able to study in the UK.

Failure to comply can result in the suspension or removal of a sponsor’s licence, civil liabilities for the institution and criminal convictions for individuals. It is therefore imperative that institutions have in place a comprehensive system to comply with the points-based system, and that key personnel understand their responsibilities.


The rest of the new points-based system is largely down to the student. If an educational institution is satisfied with the prospective student (s/he has a good track record) and issues a certificate, the student must accrue sufficient points to be allowed in.

Given that each certificate costs £10 to issue, it is worth checking that a student is likely to score the required 40 points. See box, below, for a rough guide to how points are awarded.

Points criteria: will the student be allowed in?

What points are awarded for: a valid confirmation of acceptance for studies i.e. the certificate of sponsorship

Points awarded: up to 30

Maintenance  — child student
What points are awarded for:

  • residential independent schools: evidence of sufficient funds to pay course fees and accommodation
  • non-residential independent schools: evidence of sufficient funds for course fees and an undertaking from a UK resident to provide maintenance and accommodation for the duration of the course
  • independent school (parent accompanying an under-12): evidence of funds for the fees plus £1,335 per month for one year

Maintenance — general student
What points are awarded for:

  • £9,600 funds plus proof that the course fees can be paid (courses of less than 12 months)
  • £7,200 to cover the first year, plus course fees (courses of more than 12 months)
  • £535 per month for each dependant

Points awarded: 10

The visas will be granted for a specific period of study and will allow time for students to conclude their affairs, such as attending a graduation day.

Be ready for the new rules

The UK Border Agency’s statement of intent and guidelines make it clear that education providers who do not meet their requirements will not be permitted to recruit international students from outside the EEA and Switzerland.

These requirements are also a continuing obligation — so it is imperative that educational institutions be ready for the changes in the new year, to ensure that they can continue to attract valuable international students to their schools and colleges.

Mark Blois and Helen Rideout are a partner and solicitor at Browne Jacobson

Find out more

For more information on the points-based system Tier 4, visit
or call the Sponsorship Helpline on 0845 010 6677