Understanding the Perspective of Potential Sponsors on the Points-Based System Sponsorship Arrangements
Bellis A, Williams M
Home Office, May 2008
commissioned by the Border and Immigration Agency (now the UK Border Agency)
This report presents findings from focus group research into attitudes of potential sponsors in Tier 2 (employers of skilled migrant workers) and Tier 4 (education providers) towards the proposed Points-Based System (PBS) sponsorship rules.
Key Implications for Decision Makers
- There was qualified support for the proposed arrangements. Most participants felt there was a strong incentive for compliance within the ratings system, as many organisations relied on recruiting migrant workers and foreign students.
- Employers responded more positively to the proposals than education providers, citing advantages such as increased control and a more streamlined process. Employers had Additional issues 17 concerns over the additional administrative resources required.
- Education providers, particularly Higher Education Institutions (HEIs), considered the new system to be more appropriate to recruitment of workers than students particularly given its financial connotations. HEIs were concerned that students might mistake the A- and B-rating system as reflecting academic quality.
- Both employers and education providers were concerned about sponsorship fee levels. HEIs felt that additional Migrant sponsors sponsorship fees might deter international students from coming to the UK.
- Participants thought that tougher measures for those Overseas students deliberately abusing the system were important, although Points-Based System allowances should be made for genuine errors. There were concerns that sponsors could be penalised over circumstances beyond their control.
- Participants responded positively to the proposed role of Sponsor ratings the Border and Immigration Agency (BIA) Account Manager as a ‘single point of contact’. It was particularly important that the new system should be responsive to the needs of different sectors.
- Focus groups asked urgently or details of immigration-related responsibilities of sponsors, information required during monitoring visits, fee levels for registration and Certificates of Sponsorship, the transition period and the timescales for implementation.
This was a qualitative research project and took the form of five focus groups of potential Tier 2 and Tier 4 sponsors. IRS had responsibility for the overall design and management of the research and worked in collaboration with IES to complete the research. The project was governed by a need to deliver findings by a target date and should not, therefore, be seen as providing definitive conclusions. IRS contacted and recruited the focus group participants, arranged suitable venues in London and Newcastle, and prepared the topic guide in conjunction with IES and policy colleagues at BIA. IES facilitated the focus groups, collected and analysed the data, and prepared the research report.
A total of 50 potential sponsors from Tiers 2 and 4 attended, having been recruited via BIA’s Stakeholder Engagement and Communications Team, Universities UK, the Association of Colleges (AoC) and other educational contacts. Given the tight time frame, it was not possible to recruit a representative sample from across all the Tiers, and further research would be required to determine any specific concerns from other Tiers.
Focus group discussions addressed the key areas of sponsor ratings and responsibilities, compliance with sponsorship arrangements, incentives and sanctions, support required from BIA through Account Managers, non-compliance, civil penalties, and perceived risks and abuses of the system. A small group exercise was also included to give participants an opportunity to raise any queries or issues of concern for particular organisations or sectors. The focus groups were preceded by a presentation from BIA Managed Migration Policy staff and regional Senior Account and Compliance Managers. They outlined the proposed changes to the sponsorship rules and provided an opportunity for participants to ask questions of clarification.
- Overall, there was qualified support for the proposed sponsorship rating system, with a more positive response from employers than education providers. Anticipated advantages of the system included: a quicker and more streamlined application process; more consistency; increased responsiveness to different sectoral needs; and increased control for employers.
- Concerns about the ratings system focused on the possibility of increased costs and bureaucracy; confusions arising from recruitment within more than one Tier; and a perception that the system might disadvantage smaller organisations.
- Higher Education Institutions, in particular, voiced concerns that the ratings system could be misleading for prospective students, who might think gradings related to academic quality. The term ‘sponsor’ could also have misleading financial connotations (proposed alternatives were ‘certificate of education provision’, ‘eligibility’, or ‘authorisation’). Some education providers felt that to avoid this confusion, sponsors should be ‘accredited’ or ‘nonaccredited’. While some participants saw an A-rating as a marketing opportunity, some education providers objected to published ratings to avoid sending the wrong message.
- Many participants reported that they already checked the credentials of potential migrants, and undertook other immigration-related responsibilities, but were concerned about having the necessary resources to undertake the more rigorous checks that would be required under the proposed new system. They also felt it would be difficult to give a more informed view on the impact of the new requirements until there were more precise details available. Both employers and education providers envisaged an increased role for Entry Clearance Officers (ECOs) in checking credentials overseas at the application stage.
- Some participants felt they currently received little Home Office feedback following reports sent in about non-arrivals and non-attendance. They hoped there would be more in future.
- It was generally felt that there should be little difference in the responsibilities of A- and B-rated sponsors, other than a ‘lighter touch’ approach for A-rated sponsors with regard to monitoring and compliance visits. B-rated organisations would already be on notice to improve, and so should expect more regular monitoring.
Compliance and monitoring procedures
- On the whole, participants responded positively to the proposals regarding compliance and felt it was common sense to work in partnership with BIA around this issue. Proposed monitoring procedures were considered by the majority of participants to be reasonable. However, it was felt that they should be tailored to different organisational needs and a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to compliance should be avoided.
- Education providers were specifically concerned that if compliance procedures made it difficult for overseas students to change courses, either through dissatisfaction or planned progression, it might take away their ‘consumer choice’ and make UK providers less competitive. Participants from the English Language Teaching (ELT) sector were additionally concerned that English language schools might be discouraged from regular reporting of non-attenders and absconders, for fear of being downgraded to B-status as a result.
- Participants considered that routine monitoring could be on a six-monthly or annual basis. There was a positive response to proposed random checks as organisations should be expected to ‘keep their houses in order’. However, there was a need for further clarification about what the checks would entail and what level of detail would be required from sponsors.
- Participants agreed that a distinction should be made in the monitoring procedures for established and trusted organisations on the one hand and new, unknown organisations on the other. New sponsors would need to ‘earn trust’ and should be subject to more intensive monitoring initially. However, a clear distinction should be maintained between ‘new’ and ‘poorly performing’ organisations.
Incentives and sanctions
- There was a clear understanding across the focus groups that compliance with sponsorship arrangements was the only way to ensure that they could continue to recruit migrant workers and overseas students. The majority of participants anticipated that their organisations would be A-rated and agreed that their reliance on being able to recruit migrant workers and overseas students would provide the strongest incentive for maintaining their A-rated status. The threat of being downgraded to B-status was a significant deterrent and sponsors felt it could be potentially disastrous as it could discourage migrant applications to their organisation. However, they generally felt that they would need more detailed information and guidance from BIA about what they would need to do to avoid being downgraded.
- Discussion of specific incentives that could be built into the system mostly centred around differential treatment of A- and B-rated sponsors and a system that focused on rewarding companies with good track records, for example through reduced fees or ‘fast-tracking’ of recruitment and visa application processes.
- Although many participants believed the threat of being downgraded to B-status would be a sufficient deterrent, others favoured additional sanctions for B-rated sponsors, including financial penalties and higher fees. It was felt there should be a sliding scale for any fines, depending on the size and resources of the organisation.
BIA support issues
- There was a high degree of consensus across the focus groups that the Account Manager role would be a welcome development. In particular, easily accessible Account Managers could provide a ‘single point of contact’ for sponsors and help build better links with the BIA.
- It was also considered important that Account Managers have sector-specific knowledge and expertise, although participants recognised this might be available only at Senior Account Manager level. There were concerns that Account Managers might be ‘too thin on the ground’, impacting on the consistency and quality of support services across the country.
- Suggestions for other support included: more support from, and closer liaison with, ECOs in checking migrants’ credentials and documentation; web-based and online materials; on-site training in operating the new system; and awareness-raising for ‘hard-to-reach’ organisations.
Non-compliance and abuse of the system
- The proposed distinction between ‘unwittingly’ and ‘knowingly’ employing illegal workers was considered important by potential sponsors. Whereas there should be tough measures in place for those who deliberately abused the system, allowances should also be made for genuine errors.
- Some participants commented on their perception that the new measures were shifting more responsibility to sponsors but in areas where they had little control, e.g. by expecting education providers to ‘police’ how many hours overseas students were working. There were concerns that sponsors could be penalised over circumstances they saw as beyond their control, e.g. if a migrant were to abscond or misinform the sponsor.
- A number of additional issues relating to the proposed sponsorship arrangements were raised during the focus groups, particularly by education providers who, on the whole, had more concerns about the new proposals than employers. These issues included:
- a need for more detailed information on key issues such as proposed fee levels and timing of implementation, particularly within an academic context;
- the potential impact of the proposed changes on the international overseas student market, particularly if there were significant fee increases for students;
- a request that education providers should not be required to register more than once if they come under both Tier 2 and Tier 4;
- concerns about the comparability of salaries in the international context and possible disadvantage faced by migrant workers from poorer countries; and
- the particular situation of charitable organisations and the financial implications of having to pay for Certificates of Sponsorship for volunteers recruited from overseas.
Understanding the Perspective of Potential Sponsors on the Points-Based System Sponsorship Arrangements, Bellis A, Williams M. , Home Office, 2008.
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