If your organisation is hiring international graduates, immigration will be a key part of the recruitment and onboarding stages. For applicants, switching from the Student to Skilled Worker visa is rarely straightforward, but the process can be made easier and more certain if the sponsor and applicant work together on the application.
While the Graduate route, introduced in 2021, was designed to encourage international graduates to stay in the UK by making it easier to remain in the country after studying, in practice we are seeing employers looking to move graduate recruits straight into the Skilled Worker route as a more long-term recruitment solution. However, changes to the immigration rules in July 2o23 have mean international students must meet certain conditions in order to switch in-country from a Student visa to a Skilled Worker visa.
In this guide, we look at how employers can recruit international students by applying under the Skilled Worker route to take up employment in your organisation.
The Student visa replaced the Tier 4 student visa in 2020. While this article refers to the Student visa, reference is generally to both types of visa.
Hiring international graduates
UK employers are permitted to employ student visa holders within certain restrictions and where the individual’s visa conditions allow.
For example, where the visa holder is still studying, they may carry out paid employment for a limited number of hours per week during term time, or on a full-time basis during holidays.
If you are looking to onboard a Student visa holder after they have finished their studies, you will need to ensure that their immigration status is in order and permits the type of employment you are offering.
There are a number of visa options and schemes open to student visa holders wanting to stay in the UK to work after their studies.
The most common work visa route is Skilled Worker visa.
Student visa holders are permitted to switch to the Skilled Worker visa category, provided they meet the visa eligibility criteria.
Students on a short-term student visa, however, are not eligible to apply to switch to become a skilled worker.
Skilled worker visa requirements
Under new rules introduced in July 2023, student visa holders, or those whose last grant of leave was as a student, are only allowed to switch into the Skilled Worker route if one of the following conditions apply on the date of making their application:
- they have completed their course of study for which the Confirmation of Acceptance for Studies was assigned, or
- the course has not yet completed and is full-time and degree-level or above with an education provider with a track record of immigration compliance, and the job will not start before the course completion date, or
- the applicant is a PhD student studying with an education provider with a track record of immigration compliance, and the job will not start any earlier than 24 months after their course started.
As with all Skilled Worker applications, the visa requirements must also be met in relation to the job on offer and the individual applying.
The role being recruited for has to meet the minimum levels of skill and salary.
Eligible roles are those designated as Regulated Qualifications Framework (RQF) level 3, which is the equivalent of a UK A-level qualification. The Immigration Rules Appendix Skilled Occupations lists those roles which are eligible under the Skilled Worker route, with an assigned SOC code that corresponds to a specific ‘going rate‘ for each particular job. The job on offer must be at or above the relevant going rate or £26,200 per year, or £10.75 per hour, whichever is higher.
In most cases, students switching will be considered ‘new entrants’ for the purposes of the Skilled Worker visa. This means a lower minimum salary threshold applies and that some eligibility points may be tradable.
The applicant must also be able to show they can speak, read, write and understand English, which international students in the UK should almost certainly have met already through their UK qualification or their original student application.
The Skilled Worker visa does include a financial requirement, but this does not apply to those applying in the UK who have been living here with a valid for visa for at least 12 months.
If the applicant does meet this exemption, they will need to show they have held at least £1270 for a consecutive period of 28 days by providing a bank statement ending no later than one month before the date of application, or, if you are an A rated sponsor, you can state on the CoS that you will maintain and accommodate the applicant to the end of the first month of employment in the UK up to £1,270.
Are graduates ‘new entrants’?
Applicants who qualify as ‘new entrants’ can be paid 70% of the relevant going rate for their role and still meet the visa salary requirement.
There are several ways to be considered a new entrant:
- New entrants whose current visa was issued to study a degree, PGCE or PGDip, and who have completed this or will complete this study within 3 months of applying for their new visa.
- New entrants who are under 26 years of age when applying, or if applying in their home country and their last UK permission was a Tier 4 or Student visa issued for a degree, PGCE or PGDip, and are applying less than 2 years after their last visa expired.
- New entrants whose sponsor confirms on their CoS that they are sponsored for a post-doctoral position in one of six permitted occupations per Home Office caseworker guidance; or are working towards a recognised professional qualification in a profession listed on the Centre for Professional Qualifications website; or are working towards full registration or chartered status with the relevant professional body for the job they are being sponsored for.
Applying for a Skilled Worker visa from outside the UK
In some cases, if the applicant’s period of leave is due to expire and there is little time to make a compelling application, it may require the individual to return to their home country to avoid overstaying, to allow time for the application to be built. Restrictions that previously applied to the Tier 2 visa have been removed under the new Skilled Worker route, meaning it is possible to apply for the Skilled Worker visa from overseas after a period of leave as a student. The applicant may also still qualify as a new entrant.
Sponsoring student-skilled worker visa switchers
One of the fundamental requirements of hiring under the Skilled Worker route is that your organisation holds a valid sponsorship licence, and pays the relevant fees to recruit and sponsor points-based visa workers, such as the Immigration Skills Charge.
The next step is to assign a Certificate of Sponsorship to certify that the role and applicant meet the visa requirements.
The individual then makes their visa application to the Home Office using the CoS. This has to be submitted within 3 months of the CoS being issued and no more than 3 months before the intended start of employment.
Importantly, the CoS is not transferrable between individuals. You have to issue a new CoS for each individual applicant.
Remember that as a UK sponsor licence holder, you will be operating under a number of immigration compliance duties in respect of your sponsored workers. This includes a duty to notify the Home Office if there is unexplained absence or the individual leaves your employment early. Failure to meet these duties could result in penalties, impacting your ability to employ sponsored workers.
Supporting student to skilled worker switchers
We recommend assisting the applicants with their visa application to the Home Office, ensuring their paperwork is all present and correct, that the correct fees are paid, and generally helping to avoid errors that could otherwise cause delay or issues with their ability to join your organisation.
The documentary evidence element of the application, in particular, can be difficult for applicants to satisfy without guidance.
Student visa holders should be reminded that the application has to be made before the expiry date of their current period of leave. Provided the application is submitted before this date, should their leave expire, it will be extended automatically without overstaying issues until a decision is made.
It will also be worth making the individual aware that they should not travel until the outcome of the application. Leaving the UK, Ireland, the Channel Islands or the Isle of Man while a Home Office decision is pending will automatically withdraw the application.
Should the applicant need to travel overseas urgently, take advice. In most cases, if the individual still has valid leave under their student visa, they will be permitted to travel and return to the UK, but their Skilled Worker visa application will have been forfeited and a new application would be needed, and the application fee payable again.
The rules on starting work will depend on certain factors.
Students switching to the Skilled Worker route can in most cases technically start work as soon as they submit their application, but sponsors usually have a policy to wait for the visa to be approved before allowing employment to commence. The exception is students studying a part-time postgraduate course who must always wait until their Skilled Worker permission is granted before starting work.
Those with Tier 4 leave granted before 1 October 2019 are subject to different rules and may need to start work on a temporary basis. We can advise employers on the specific rules to avoid issues with working permission.
As with all Home Office applications, strict rules and eligibility criteria apply for applicants switching from the Student to Skilled Worker visa. With so much at stake, employers should take a proactive and collaborative approach with their new recruits to support them through the visa application process and maximise the prospects of the visa being granted.
DavidsonMorris’ team of business immigration lawyers are on hand to advise employers on the switching process, on supporting with applications such as the Skilled Worker route. We can also advise on related issues such as applications for intra company transfers and the Health and Care Worker visa.
If you have any questions relating to switching to the Skilled Worker category or any wider business immigration related query, please get in touch.
Student to skilled worker visa FAQs
Can you switch from student visa to work permit?
It is possible for students in the UK to switch to a UK work visa such as the Skilled Worker visa, provided they meet the eligibility requirements.
Is there a financial requirement switching from Student to Skilled Worker visa?
If you have lived in the UK with lawful status for 12 months prior to your application, you will not need to meet any financial maintenance requirement.
Does the Skilled Worker visa lead to ILR?
Yes, after five years with lawful status as a Skilled Worker you may be eligible to apply for UK Indefinite Leave to Remain.
Last updated: 19 July 2023