covid banner

UK Border Agency licences for education providers

Education Providers (whether publicly or privately funded) are required to obtain a Licence from the UK Border Agency to sponsor any students from outside the European Union (including those under 18) who wish to study at their establishments.

State schools are the exception to the above. State schools, including those with sixth forms, cannot admit any non European Union pupils who are required to obtain permission to enter the United Kingdom as students and are therefore not required to have a licence.

Foreign students generate millions of pounds’ worth of fees each year for Education Providers across the entire education sector. It is therefore extremely important that all Providers with any non EU students or who wish to offer places on courses to such students are aware of the licensing requirements, the Provider’s duties as sponsor and the potential problems caused if existing licences are downgraded, revoked or even withdrawn.

The standard Licence

To be eligible to obtain a Licence, Education Providers have to either be subject to a system of public reviews or have accreditation.

Those who are already subject to a system of public reviews by various agencies by virtue of either receiving public funding or, in the case of other Providers, who have been granted UK degree awarding powers must show that they have been inspected or audited by a relevant body such as Ofsted or the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education. Providers who are outside the system of public reviews, must hold valid accreditation from one of the bodies approved by the UK Border Agency such as the British Accreditation Council.

If an Educational Provider has several branches, each may apply for a separate standard licence or a number of branches of the same Provider may obtain a single standard licence. A standard licence is granted for four years and renewable thereafter.

Highly Trusted Sponsor Licence

The Highly Trusted Sponsor Licence scheme went live on 6 April 2010. A Highly Trusted Sponsor licence replaces any existing standard licence and is granted for a period of 12 months and is renewable. Highly Trusted Sponsors, as the name suggests, enjoy additional benefits and freedoms compared with standard licence holders.

All publicly funded Education Providers who fulfil the following requirements will qualify as Highly Trusted Sponsors as follows:

1. Have had an A rated standard licence for a minimum of 6 months
2. Be subject to full institutional inspection by Ofsted, the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education or other recognised body approved by the UK Border Agency.

These Education Providers will automatically appear on the Highly Trusted Sponsors’ Register and be deemed to have Highly Trusted Sponsor status but will not automatically be awarded a licence.

Education Providers currently deemed to have Highly Trusted Sponsor status had to apply by 30 June 2010 for a Highly Trusted Sponsor Licence, otherwise they lost this status and would be unable to access the Highly Trusted Sponsor benefits from 1 July 2010. Only sponsors who hold a Highly Trusted Sponsor Licence are able to offer restricted courses to foreign students after 1 May 2010 as follows.

1. Courses at National Qualifications Framework level 3 and equivalent (this will include A levels and BTEC courses).
2. Courses below degree level which include work placements (excluding foundation degrees with work placements which can still be offered by any standard licence holder).

The immigration rules make special provision for foreign students under 18 studying A levels at independent schools which may circumvent the need to apply for a Highly Trusted Sponsor Licence.

Those Education Providers who are not automatically deemed to have Highly Trusted Sponsor status must have made their applications by 30 April 2010 in order to continue to have offered restricted courses until 30 June 2010. If they did not apply for a Highly Trusted Sponsor Licence by 30 April 2010 they were not able to offer restricted courses to foreign students after 1 May 2010.

Sponsorship duties

The UK Border Agency imposes a significant number of duties on sponsoring Education Providers including keeping records of all foreign students’ passports or other immigration status documents, reporting absences of students from their course of study in defined circumstances and complying fully with the requirements of the UK Border Agency’s Licensing Unit.

Once the Provider has a licence, approved, designated users at the Provider can then access the UK Border Agency’s online sponsor management system to carry out its sponsorship duties and report any changes to the Agency.

Downgrading, Revoking and Withdrawal of licences

Where the UK Border Agency Licensing Unit is of the opinion that a sponsoring Education Provider is not complying with its duties, it may notify the Provider that its licence will be downgraded from an A rating to a B rating unless specific steps are taken. B rated licence holders are more frequently and extensively inspected by the licensing unit of the UK Border Agency.

Sponsors are usually given only a 28 day period to take remedial action to ensure that their licence is not downgraded. In a worst case scenario, a licence could be withdrawn altogether leaving the Provider unable to offer courses to foreign students at all as well as affecting the status of existing foreign students at the Provider.

Where licences are suspended, Providers will not be able to sponsor any new students during the period of suspension which could cause considerable loss of revenue. Downgrading of licences is happening more frequently because of the more hard line approach adopted by the UK Border Agency. Institutions can however apply to lift suspensions and apply to rejoin the register of licensed sponsors.

© RadcliffesLeBrasseur


This briefing is for guidance purposes only. RadcliffesLeBrasseur LLP accepts no responsibility or liability whatsoever for any action taken or not taken in relation to this note and recommends that appropriate legal advice be taken having regard to a client's own particular circumstances.