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Blog post Part of series: Covid-19, education and educational research

International students and Covid-19: What is the current advice?

Luna Williams, Immigration Advice Service

The pandemic that has gripped the UK has meant that uncertainty becoming central to our way of life. With borders closed, migration curtailed and social distancing policies in place, this uncertainty is particularly magnified in migrant communities, where many feel trapped between Covid-19-related restrictions and UK immigration laws.

‘An already complex visa process is being shaken to its core, with lots of new questions and worries being thrown into the mix.’

International students are one such community. The whole basis of their stay in the UK relies on their ability to study. Take that ability away and their right to remain feels very insecure.

An already complex visa process is being shaken to its core, with lots of new questions and worries being thrown into the mix. Some students feel that they’ve entered a kind of no man’s land. They can’t go home, and they can’t finish their studies in the UK in a way that satisfies the original visa requirements they signed up to.

Current provisions for students whose leave to remain is expiring

The Home Office has been granting extensions on all visas that expire before 31 May 2020. This includes tier 4 student visas in circumstances in which a student cannot leave the UK due to the coronavirus (for example, if all flights to their home country are cancelled).

This is not a blanket extension: it is granted on a request basis. To apply, international students are advised to email the Coronavirus Immigration Help Centre via CIH@homeoffice.gov.uk. In their email they should include their personal details, their visa number and an explanation of why they are unable to return ahead of the expiry of their leave to remain. This request will then be assessed, and a decision is reportedly reached within five working days.

While this may be cause for a sigh of relief for some, the extension isn’t likely to help those who need to make an application for longer-term leave if they do not already meet the requirements. Let’s say a student wishes to switch from a tier 4 to tier 2 visa, and is waiting for a sponsor licence to be approved. They wouldn’t benefit here as there would still be no certificate of sponsorship, which would mean that the requirements not being met

Furthermore, students who are eligible for this extension will still have to meet academic progression and maintenance requirements during their time in the UK.

Other concessions from UK Visas & Immigration

The Home Office has issued a number of other temporary concessions specifically for those on tier 4 and short-term student visas. These will apparently be withdrawn once the situation ‘returns to normal,’ whenever that may be.

The maximum length of time for which a tier 4 student can be granted leave will remain the same, the Home Office says. Significantly, however, it states that the UK Visas and Immigration Service may apply discretion in future where ‘any period of leave that would cause someone to exceed the limit will do so as a result of Covid-19’.

Those who successfully extend their tier 4 visas will now not need to register with the local police, and there has been a slight relaxation around some of the procedures relating to ‘right to rent’ checks.

Tier 4 students who have work rights and are employed by an NHS trust as a doctor, nurse or paramedic will also no longer be restricted to 20 hours’ work per week during term time.

Importantly, tier 4 students with work rights whose sponsor suspends all study as a result of the Covid-19 outbreak will be considered to be on vacation and so will be permitted to work full-time during this period.

The Home Office will also permit switching into tier 4 from short-term routes on an exceptional basis until 31 May.

Other concerns

For students concerned about continuing to meet financial obligations, the ability to take on more working hours comes as a partial form of relief. However, there are still many unanswered questions when it comes to how individuals can continue to support their studies, rent and living requirements in light of coronavirus restrictions. With many international students working in hospitality, the fact that the vast majority of customer-facing roles have been curtailed indefinitely is of major concern. What’s more, with a large proportion of international students relying on income and support from overseas parents for both tuition and maintenance, similar business closures and job losses overseas creates additional worry for many foreign students.

No financial assistance is available from the government for most international students. Increasing numbers of them are facing economic hardship after losing work or support from parents and home countries.

Home Office advice for overseas students residing in the UK seems to be changing by the day. Even when new advice is made available, it can be hard to follow and often throws up more questions than it answers. Keeping up with it is an added strain on those who already face uncertainty, financial hardship and accommodation issues.

International students who are affected by the coronavirus, either directly or indirectly, are encouraged to contact their universities for advice on their specific situation.