New immigration rules: What do universities need to know?

On 1 October 2019, the government changed the rules governing applications across many of the UK’s immigration routes. Tom Brett Young looks at what’s changed and the impact on higher education institutions

Tier 4 (General)

  • Students studying at a degree level and above can now apply to switch into the Tier 2 (General) category up to three months before the expected end date of their course.
  • They can also start working for their Tier 2 sponsor during that period and after they have applied to switch into Tier 2.
  • Master’s and PhD-level students are permitted to start a different course of study with their current sponsor. These students will not need to return overseas in order to make an application.

Tier 2 (General)

  • PhD-level occupations are exempt from the annual cap of 20,700.
  • Tier 2 migrants working in PhD-level occupations will no longer have research-related absences from the UK count against them when applying for settlement (‘Indefinite Leave to Remain’). The same rule applies to their partners.
  • The number of jobs classified as in shortage has dramatically increased and now includes biological scientists and biochemists, web design and development professionals, artists, arts officers, producers and directors, and graphic designers.

Start-up category

  • The Tier 4 (General) rules now permit students to start work on their business activities while an application under the Start-up category supported by an endorsing body is under consideration.
  • Students on the Tier 4 Doctorate Extension Scheme are exempt from the general requirement that Start-up applicants have not previously established a UK business.
  • Endorsing bodies in the Start-up category (which will include many universities) are no longer required to have a ‘checkpoint’ with applicants after 24 months (the category being limited to 24 months in total).

Tier 1 (Exceptional Talent)

Applicants applying under this category must be endorsed by a Designated Competent Body. Three of those Bodies – The Royal Society, The Royal Academy of Engineering and The British Academy – have decided to amend the endorsement criteria by:

  • Expanding the list of peer-reviewed fellowships
  • Including applicants who have held a peer-reviewed fellowship in the 12 months prior to the application date
  • Permitting a wider range of eligible senior academic and research positions to qualify.

Technical changes

  • Applicants are now only required to provide the reference number from their approved English language tests, rather than the certificate.
  • The definition of a ‘professional sportsperson’ is being revised again. The revision will confirm that Tier 4 (General) students studying at a degree level and above can play for, or coach, sports teams on an amateur basis or as part of a work placement undertaken as an integral and assessed part of their course.
  • Tier 2 migrants who are absent from work due to sickness, statutory parental leave, assisting in a national or international humanitarian or environmental crisis, or engaging in legal strike action will not be penalised as a result of time spent outside the UK or reductions in pay related to those absences.

The return of the post-study work visa?

Two days after the changes to the Immigration Rules were published, the government announced that it will be introducing a new ‘Graduate Route’, allowing international students to stay in the UK and work for two years after graduating.

The re-introduction of this immigration category has been welcomed by universities who have been campaigning for such a move ever since the Tier 1 (Post Study Work) category was closed in 2012.

Contact details

Tom Brett Young is a partner at leading education law firm VWV. Tom can be contacted at: or: on 0121 227 3759.

To be kept up to date on legal, regulatory and governance issues, please register for VWV’s dedicated HE portal OnStream at:

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