With the policy landscape of destination countries continuously shifting, there is barely time for the dust to settle before another announcement, ranging from the positive to the potentially disastrous. However, the proximity of the new term, coupled with a recent suite of updates and announcements make now an opportune moment to take stock of the key policies relating to international students in 4 of the key international study destinations.
IDP Connect’s recent International Student Crossroads II Survey, identified that concerns over post-study work visas, the impact of online courses on their status and experience, and practical concerns over getting to and safely residing in the destination country, were all key issues for students. With time running out before the next intake, it is important to acknowledge where we are internationally as destination countries in remedying these student concerns.
Here, we cover and compare the key policies of Australia, Canada, the UK and the USA relating to international students, as well as some trusted sourced for regularly updated information in each region.
The UK government announced in June that Tier 4 visas will remain valid for both existing and new international students that undertake blended learning (starting online or taught partially online) for the 2020-2021 academic year.
The Post Study Work VISA will also be available for international students starting courses this year providing they arrive in the UK before April 2021. This includes students who are taking courses that are blended with a mixture of online and in-person teaching.
In terms of the visa applications themselves, to make the issuing of visa’s easier, the government has confirmed that applications can still be made using CAS that were previously issued even if course dates have changed. Where the course date has changed, sponsors must update the new course start date (if known) or, if CAS has become invalid and the student was unable to travel due to Covid-19, the Home Office will consider accepting that CAS with a new visa application on a case-by- case basis.
Additionally, it is now acceptable for Tier 4 required documents to be provided and kept on file as digital copies (e.g. a photograph), in circumstances where it is no longer practical or safe for a student to submit these documents in person, or where sponsor sites are closed due to Covid-19 social distancing measures. While many visa centres were closed during the pandemic, a phased re-opening of visa application centres began in June.
In recognition of the challenges posed by IELTS disruption and the difficulty in accessing English testing results, in certain circumstances, higher education providers can now self-assess a student's level of English. Where students are required to take a SELT overseas but a test centre is unavailable, sponsors which are higher education providers with a track record of compliance will be able to self-assess students as having a B1 level of English, where progression on to the main course is dependent upon passing the pre-sessional course.
This temporary measure may come to an end as IELTS testing resumes across the world. While Covid-19 restrictions caused temporary closures of high-stakes language test centres, the majority of regions are now back open. For the latest high-stakes test, IELTS, additional programs have been introduced to help with demand to ensure students get a test quickly.
Regarding the ability of students to travel to the UK, although a 14-day quarantine is currently in place for many countries, there is a growing list of countries from which travellers do not need to quarantine upon arrival to the UK. The list of quarantine exempt countries can be found here.
Further flight arrangements specifically for students is an issue that has been raised, as have called for more details on what quarantine would look like and support for international students arriving into the UK under these circumstances, which may lead to additional policy announcements in the coming weeks.
For continued updates of the COVID-19 situation in terms of its impact on institutions and international student policy in the UK, UUKi provide the latest relevant resources here, alongside a frequently updated FAQ’s page here
For international students themselves seeking the latest guidance and support regarding the UK, UKCISA provide regularly updated Q&A’s here.
Student visas and online learning
International students still meet their student visa conditions if they have an approved course deferral or are studying online, a move intending to ensure students have options regarding their studies and can continue with their plans with confidence. Switching to online courses is simple, education providers can issue a new Confirmation of Enrolment (CoE) and enrol students to study online, which means that students do not have to take any action themselves for this to happen.
In terms of the post-study work visa policies, the Australian government confirmed on Monday 20th July that current student visa holders studying online outside Australia due to COVID-19 will be able to use that study to count towards the Australian study requirement for a post-study work visa. Graduates who held a student visa but returned home due to COVID-19 are also eligible to apply for a post-study work visa outside of Australia if they are unable to return due to COVID-19 travel restrictions.
This was followed on Tuesday 21st July with a further announcement that eligibility for the highly sought after PSW visa was also being extended to future students who study online from overseas, providing both prospective and current students with greater certainty and incentive to continue with study plans in Australia. Students who complete a bachelor’s or master’s degree by coursework are permitted to stay for two years after graduation.
The government is yet to clarify the post-study work visa status of international students who began online studies from overseas before they obtained the student visa that they will need to eventually enter Australia. This issue is expected to be clarified in the coming days.
During the July 20th announcements, the government also stated that it will recommence granting student visas in all locations lodged outside Australia so that, when international borders re-open, students will already have visas and will be able to make travel arrangements. International students can also lodge a further student visa application free of charge if they are unable to complete their studies within their original visa validity due to COVID-19.
In recognition of the disruption to IELTS and other English proficiency testing services, the government has also announced that additional time will be given for applicants to provide English language results where COVID-19 has disrupted access to these services. While Covid-19 restrictions caused temporary closures of high-stakes language test centres, the majority of regions have now reopened. For the latest high-stakes test, IELTS, additional programs have been introduced to help with demand to ensure students get a test quickly.
Topics around the enabling student travel, including the prospect of chartering specific student flights and the logistics of a quarantine period for international students, have been raised and further decisions on those areas may be announced in the future. At present, student visa holders outside Australia will not be able to travel to Australia until COVID-19 travel restrictions have been relaxed and must start their courses online. Travel restrictions are set by the Australian Government and are reviewed regularly.
For the latest information on Australia’s policies in relation to international students, the Study Australia website (the official Australian Government website for international students) provides regular information on COVID-19 related changes and policy changes here.
An ICE announcement on July 6th that invalidated student visas if teaching was provided online was reversed after political pressure and legal actions from many colleges, universities, municipalities and tech companies, demonstrating the influence the higher education sector can have on government when united. As a result, institutions are advised to continue following ICE guidance from March where there is flexibility regarding the validity of student visas when courses are delivered online.
Regarding the OPT visa program, the most common post-study work visa route for international students, the scheme is still running under the same regulations as before COVID-19. This includes the requirement that a student must complete one academic year (three quarters) of full-time study in the U.S. to be eligible for OPT. In accordance with U.S. government guidance, a student’s F-1 SEVIS record cannot be activated by the institution until the student physically arrives in the U.S. for their first in-person quarter, which is when eligibility for OPT starts to accrue.
The U.S. government has allowed Post-Completion OPT and STEM OPT students to engage in remote work on a temporary basis due to COVID-19. However, individuals currently on OPT that are unable to work or become unemployed due to COVID-19 will be required to depart the U.S. should they be out of work for 90+ days. Equally, students must be physically in the U.S. to apply for OPT. Institutions and independent bodies are requesting that the government relax some of the current restrictions in the context of COVID-19.
Earlier in the pandemic, visa processing services were suspended, however the U.S. Department of State has announced that routine visa services have begun to resume at consulates and embassies around the world on a post by post basis. There is no specific re-opening date, as each mission will determine when they can resume visa processing based on when it is safe to re-open in each location. F and J visa appointments will be prioritized for individuals with urgent travel needs.
For international students able to obtain a visa or returning to their studies in the U.S, despite a widespread travel ban in place in the USA international students travelling from the Schengen Area, the UK, and Ireland with valid F-1 and M-1 visas are automatically exempt, do not need to seek a national interest exception to travel, and can enter the country for study purposes. Students from those areas but are travelling on a J-1 may contact the nearest embassy or consulate to initiate an exception request.
While Covid-19 restrictions caused temporary closures of high-stakes language test centres, many regions are now back open. For the latest high-stakes test, IELTS, additional programs have been introduced to help with demand to ensure students get a test quickly.
More widely, the travel ban remains in place and borders are closed. However, flights from India to the US have been re-established under a new “air-bubble” scheme, which could make it easier for Indian students to reach the USA for their studies. Should this prove successful, additional “air-bubble” schemes could be set up.
Following the rescission of the original announcement on online delivery invalidating student visas, ICE issued new guidance on July 24 stating new international students, unlike current international students, will not be able to travel to the U.S. to take an entirely online course of study.
With this in mind, ICE/SEVP have released an FAQ on July 24th regarding policy during coronavirus, which can be found here. Another trusted source of policy updates from the US State Department is EducationUSA.
In Canada, international student visas remain valid if students are undertaking blended learning, (starting or partially online) for the 2020-2021 academic year. Furthermore, Immigration Canada is both fast-tracking permit processing for foreign students who submit complete applications online and introducing a new two-stage visa process to allow applicants to start their studies even if some of their documentation is delayed due to the pandemic. This means that prospective students will be able to go ahead with their plans and commence their studies online upon receiving an “approval in principle” which will need to be upgraded to full approval once they are able to meet the full visa document requirements and before they enter Canada.
The Canadian immigration department has also announced that new students can count time spent studying online from abroad toward eligibility for a post-graduation work permit, so long as at least 50% of their program is completed in Canada.
This has the potential to act as a great an incentive for prospective international students, however many existing students who started online classes in May have already completed 50% of their program online.
In order to be eligible for the PGWV, these current students are required by the IRCC to start physical face-to-face classes in Canada to finish the remaining 50%. In many cases, in order to meet this requirement, current international students will need to apply for a visa extension and need the support of institutions, particularly in providing the required documents. It is important that processes are set up to facilitate this in order to resolve this issue and give prospective international students the reassurance that they can apply and will be eligible for the PGWV however the next year of the COVID-19 pandemic progresses.
A further positive regarding PGWV status is that current international students already in Canada will not lose their eligibility for a post-graduation work permit if they are forced to complete more than 50% of their program online, reduce their studies to part-time or take a break from their studies completely as a result of restrictions on classroom learning due to the pandemic.
While Covid-19 restrictions caused temporary closures of high-stakes language test centres, causing concerns over obtaining the proof of English proficiency needed for student visas, the majority of regions are now back open. For the latest high-stakes test, IELTS, additional programs have been introduced to help with demand to ensure students get a test quickly while the new two-stage visa process also helps ease the time pressures.
In terms of international travel restrictions, Canada is extending a global travel ban and mandatory quarantine measures that require travellers to Canada to self-isolate for 14 days upon the arrival. The mandatory quarantine order is in effect until at least August 31 and the travel ban extended to at least July 31. However, international students who had a valid study permit, or who were approved for a study permit on or before March 18, 2020, are exempt from travel restrictions that prevented most foreign nationals from entering Canada. All students are only admitted to Canada if they have had pre and post-travel COVID-19 tests and they have a credible plan to quarantine for 14 days.
For the latest updates on Canada’s immigration policy the IRCC website is regularly updated here.
The experience and rection of each destination country has been unique. While there seems to be consensus, at present, regarding online courses not affecting the validity of student visas, each destination has taken a different tack in terms of how they adjust the applications process, from the new two-stage approach in Canada to the recommencement of visa granting in Australia, and the limited action in the UK or USA. Furthermore, while a lot has been confirmed with regards to blended learning, confirmation of visa status over longer periods of online tuition is largely absent.
With regards to post-study work visas, while that statements which have begun to emerge from destination countries reflect a widespread move towards flexibility and ensuring the eligibility of students studying under unusual circumstances due to COVID-19, the devil remains in the detail and many students want assurance that they will be able to follow a post-graduation visa route even if much or all of their course is affected due to COVID-19 adjustments.
The area most neglected by policy at present seems to be the details of travel, quarantine and indeed additional health provisions to protect international students when they are able to enter their destination country. There is no sign yet from many of the destination countries when their travel restrictions will end, and even those who are re-opening international borders have largely failed in delivering suitable support and incentives to give international students the confidence to embark on their journey.
As the second International Student Crossroads survey showed, their remains a strong intent in international students to commence with their original study plans, and the recent announcements from destination countries regarding PSW visas and applications process will doubtless have fortified student resolve. However, the survey also highlighted that the key issues causing students to hesitate over finalising their study plans are practical considerations were concerning healthcare provision in the home country, accommodation and care provisions in quarantine, and organisation of flights for students, with flexibility about enrolment dates also ranking highly.
These areas remain largely under-supported by destination country governments. While this is a problem it also provides an opportunity to again unite as a sector to push policy forward, and to step up as institutions, taking ownership of these issues in the absence of government action.