These are times of uncertainty and while the primary concern is for public health, without further assurances from the UK Government, the vulnerability of being subject to immigration control can compound other worries during any crisis. The large-scale postponement, suspension and cancellation of social activity, including working and studying commitments, poses some important questions about satisfying the conditions of student visas.
UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI) requires all Tier 4 institutions (schools, colleges, higher education facilities and universities) to keep a record of sponsored Tier 4 students including their attendance levels. This is required in order to meet their sponsor duties towards the UKVI when sponsoring students to study with them.
There are consequences to students who are absent from studies or cannot complete their studies before their Tier 4 visa expires. If a student misses 10 consecutive expected points of contact, without the Tier 4 institution’s authorisation, the guidance normally requires them to withdraw their sponsorship of the student. If their sponsorship is withdrawn from the student, the student will have no longer be able to continue their studies in the UK.
What about absences due to Covid-19?
The current circumstances being exceptional, specific government guidance that addresses Covid-19, last updated on 27 February 2020 and since overshadowed by other announcements, has been issued (last updated on the 27th February) gives us some parameters to work with:
‘Some Tier 4 students or Tier 2/5 employees may be prevented from attending their studies or employment due to illness, the need to serve a period of quarantine or the inability to travel due to travel restrictions caused by coronavirus’.
This covers students who are taken ill by Covid-19, with absences authorised by the institution, as well as those whose movements have been restricted due to the threat. It goes on to say:
‘The Home Office recognises the current situation is exceptional and will not take any compliance action against students or employees who are unable to attend their studies/work due to the coronavirus outbreak, or against sponsors which authorise absences and continue to sponsor students or employees despite absences for this reason. The Home Office will keep this under review, especially if the length of absences mean a potential repeat of period of studies become necessary’.
This means Tier 4 institutions do not need to report students who are absent due to Covid-19, as long as those absences are authorised by them. This also means the institution should not withdraw their sponsorship of the student.
In light of the guidance and given that the situation is developing and changing constantly, it is advisable that students keep a record of any emails or letters sent by their institution, which confirm (in writing) the latest advice on, or authorisation of attendances, while Covid-19 is posing health and logistical issues to life in the UK.
What about institution closures or online studying?
The above guidance would apply if a Tier 4 institution decides to close completely or partially. This will be fine for short-term absences due to closures. Some Tier 4 institutions are deciding to close premises and transfer all teaching online – in these cases, they need to ensure they are confident the students are ‘attending’ online sessions in order to maintain their UKVI duties.
However, if the absences become so long that the student is unable to complete their studies before their visa expires then the institution will have no choice but to cancel their sponsorship. No one should be in this situation yet and we expect - given that this appears to be a long term situation - the above government Covid-19 guidance to be updated to inform us how they intend to deal with longer term absences.
We will update you when the government’s Covid-19 guidance is updated.