Press release

Inspection restrictions for educational establishments sponsoring foreign students

Inspection regime restrictions for educational establishments sponsoring foreign students under Tier 4 of the points-based system.

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In 2014, the Home Office suspended 57 private colleges from the Tier 4 sponsor register. This was as a result of investigations initiated when systematic cheating was uncovered at English Language Test Centres operated by the Educational Testing Service (ETS). This inspection examined how effectively the Home Office monitored Tier 4 sponsors’ compliance with their sponsor duties, and also looked at the Home Office’s handling of its investigations into sponsors linked to ETS (known as Operation Firewall).

Previously, there were weaknesses in procedures and practices at the local level, which had led to inconsistent and ineffective compliance checking.

The Chief Inspector found that:

  • the selection of sponsors for a compliance visit was based on an effective risk assessment process
  • an increased proportion of compliance visits were unannounced, where the sponsor was given no prior notice of the visit and therefore had no opportunity to fix or try to hide any non-compliance. In the 6 months to end July 2014, 179 (87%) out of 205 visits were unannounced
  • compliance visit reports were completed in a timely fashion, with 98% completed within 10 working days
  • as part of Operation Firewall the Home Office needed to complete a large number of complex compliance visits quickly. This was achieved and by the time of this inspection, 169 sponsors had been visited, and 54 licences had been revoked
  • following Operation Firewall, a number of changes had been made to the way Tier 4 sponsor compliance was handled. For example, a dedicated Tier 4 compliance network had been created, dealing solely with Tier 4 compliance visits

The Chief Inspector also found that:

  • some pre-Firewall compliance visits had not been sufficiently thorough, and there had been little or no management scrutiny of visit reports where sponsors had been reported by the compliance officer to be fully compliant
  • the Home Office had failed to follow-up on reports of compliance failings by a number of the sponsors later suspended as a result of Operation Firewall
  • the quality of compliance reports varied considerably, with many lacking any details of the compliance checks completed or information to support the results of those checks

Independent Chief Inspector for Borders and Immigration, David Bolt, said:

Operation Firewall was a success in terms of the way UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI) swiftly mobilised to deal with the problems with ETS identified by the media. The control measures put in place since have improved the effectiveness of the Tier 4 compliance regime.

Prior to Firewall, inconsistencies in the way compliance officers worked, and inadequate management oversight, meant that some educational establishments were not checked thoroughly enough and others were allowed to retain their sponsor status despite doubts having been raised about their compliance.

The fact that compliance officers are geographically dispersed is an advantage when arranging sponsor visits, but requires more engaged and more consistent management to ensure that everyone is operating to the same high standards.

The Chief Inspector made 5 recommendations for improvement. These included the Home Office strengthening its quality assurance regime and ceasing the practice of compliance reporting by exception.


  • The report was laid in Parliament on 16 July 2015

  • David Bolt took up the post of Independent Chief Inspector on 1 May 2015

  • Non-EEA foreign nationals who wish to take up a study course in the UK lasting over six months must apply for leave to enter or remain under Tier 4 of the points-based system

  • All foreign students must have a sponsor before they can apply to study in the UK under Tier 4 of PBS, and sponsors must assess the student’s ability and intention to complete the course before issuing a Confirmation of Acceptance for Studies (CAS)

  • In order to ensure that sponsors are complying with their sponsorship duties, the Home Office visits sponsors to check the facilities and processes, including record-keeping systems. These are known as compliance visits. The Home Office can carry out compliance visits at any time and these may be announced or unannounced

Published 16 July 2015