How to sponsor international graduates as “skilled workers”

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

Plenty of SUs have international sabbs and international students as student staff – and some employ international students while on the graduate route.

But a question we get a lot concerns SUs actually sponsoring international graduates as permanent career staff on the “Skilled Worker” route – which has now replaced the old Tier 2 (General) route.

There are a number of misconceptions about the rules, many of which have changed in recent years. We’re not immigration lawyers and as ever you should seek detailed legal advice of going down the route of becoming a sponsor.

And before you ask, as far as we know there are four SUs that have done this and appear on the Register of licensed sponsors – Aston SU, The Union MMU, Bristol SU and Northampton SU.

Points make prizes

The so-called “Points-Based Immigration System” was formally introduced in 2021. It allows employers – including SUs – to recruit staff to work in the UK in a specific job in an eligible skilled occupation, where eligibility is determined by skill and salary.

The “minimum skill threshold” to carry out the role is now RQF Level 3 (e.g. A-levels/Scottish Highers level) – it used to be RQF Level 6 (e.g. Degree level).

There is then a threshold that applies to the salary of the role, which is now (at the time of publication) £38,700 a year, or the “going rate” for that role, whichever is higher.

That said, there are more roles that are eligible for sponsorship as sponsored workers who are paid less than £38,700 may still be eligible for sponsorship through a combination of “tradeable points” (more on that below).

There is no (longer a) requirement for sponsors to undertake a “Resident Labour Market Test”. This used to be a test, designed by the Home Office, that ensured that the role you wanted to fill couldn’t be filled by residential (UK or EEA) talent. Under the old RLMT, the job role was advertised to residential talent for at least 28 days in total using an approved method.

Whiler that no longer applies, vacancies must still be “genuine” and meet the skill and salary thresholds. A six-year maximum length of stay in this route has also been removed.

What is a “genuine vacancy”

The Home Office says that a “genuine vacancy” is one that:

  • requires the jobholder to perform the specific duties and responsibilities for the job and meets all of the requirements of the relevant route
  • does not include dissimilar and/or predominantly lower-skilled duties
  • is appropriate to the business in light of its business model, business plan and scale

It is therefore crucial that the job description and/or person spec accurately reflects the real role, and that an applicant’s qualifications, skills and experience meet any selection criteria detailed in it.

Who’s eligible?

Under the Points-Based System (PBS), applicants must “score” a minimum of 70 points. This (and this gets a bit confusing) has to include 50 points for mandatory/”non-tradeable” criteria, and 20 points for “tradeable” criteria.

The mandatory criteria are as follows:

  • Sponsorship (20 points): Offer of a job from an approved sponsor accompanied by a Certificate of Sponsorship
  • Job at an appropriate skill level (RQF Level 3 and above) (20 points): The job must be in an eligible occupation code
  • English language (10 points): At Level B1 or higher. Applicants can evidence these skills by meeting one of the requirements listed here

You’ll see that it’s not enough for an employer simply to assert that the role they’re employing requires a Level 3 qualification – it has to “fit” one of the standard occupational codes.

UKVI has a list of eligible occupations here, and on that page there’s a link to a tool developed by the ONS if you can’t find a title that fits.

Some other bits to note:

  • If the role is part-time the “going rate” for a role can be pro-rated as long as the total applicable general salary threshold is met.
  • Only basic gross pay (before income tax and including employee pension and national insurance contributions) can be considered for sponsorship purposes.
  • “Salary” doesn’t include other allowances, pay or benefits – even if those are taxable.
  • Minimum salary requirements are based on annual salaries. If an applicant will be working in the UK for less than 12 months, UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI) pro-ratas the gross actual earnings to the equivalent annual figure to work out if they meet the salary requirement.

Tradeable points

As well as scoring 50 points for the above, applicants have to score a further 20 “tradeable” points. These are based on:

  • their salary; and
  • other criteria if necessary and applicable (i.e. any relevant academic qualifications they hold, being sponsored to work in a shortage occupation, working in an eligible health or education occupation, or because they are a “new entrant” to the UK’s labour market)

As such, if the applicant meets the mandatory (50 points) requirements for sponsorship, as long as they are paid the higher of the general salary threshold of £38,700 or the “going rate” for that role, they get the needed 20 points to get them to the 70 points needed for sponsorship. You can find the “going rates” rates here.

If however you don’t pay at that rate, they can earn the extra points as long as they are paid at least £23,200:

  • An applicant may earn points if they have a job offer in a specific shortage occupation (a list of what counts can be found here).
  • They can earn points if they have a PhD which is relevant to the job (if the JD doesn’t specifically state this as an “essential” criterion, it is up to the union to be able to provide a credible explanation of how the applicant’s PhD is relevant to the role).
  • The salary requirement for new entrants is 30% lower than the rate for experienced workers in any occupation (but the minimum of £23,200 must always be met).

Additional basic requirements

As well as all of that, some other bits apply:

  • The applicant has to meets the English language requirement (having a GCSE, A level, Scottish National Qualification level 4 or 5, Scottish Higher or Advanced Higher in English from studying at a UK school or having a degree-level academic qualification taught in English counts without a specific language test)
  • The applicant has no general grounds for refusal (like a negative immigration history)


The role/applicant is normally subject to the Immigration Skills Charge (ISC) (£364 a year) – so an applicant on a three-year fixed-term contract has to pay £1,092 (this is the rate for charities, which all SUs are).

However if you’re sponsoring someone who has a UK student visa to switch to a work visa, there is no charge if they switch to either a Skilled Worker or Senior or Specialist Worker visa and then extend their stay on that new visa.

If payable, the Immigration Skills Charge is payable in full each time you assign a Certificate of Sponsorship.

How to become a sponsor

As noted in the intro, most SUs are not sponsors – we’ve been spoiled a bit with sabbs by the university acting as the sponsor. That does sometimes raise the question – could the university be our sponsor? Sadly not – in the immigration rules, sabbs are actually a type of student – whereas if you’re employing, you need to be the sponsor.

To get a skilled worker licence, you have to submit an application to the Home Office (UKVI). If you’re approved you then have to meet compliance duties when hiring and employing. The Home Office uses the application process to verify the SU’s eligibility to meet these duties.

If the licence is granted, the sponsor is then given the power to assign a Certificate of Sponsorship (a bit like CASs for students) to the worker, verifying that the role on offer is genuine and meets the visa requirements. The worker is then able to make a Skilled Worker visa application to the Home Office.

Sponsor licences are valid for four years, which you have to apply to renew before it expires. However (and moderately confusingly) the longest you can sponsor a worker for is 5 years.

Key eligibility criteria include:

  • Documentary evidence that proves you are a genuine organisation
  • The stuff about “role” referred to earlier
  • HR systems and processes that are compliant with sponsor duties relating to record-keeping, monitoring and reporting (see below)
  • UKVI will conduct background checks on your key people and anyone involved in the day-to-day operation of your licence.

On that third bullet, the Home Office assesses whether you’re trustworthy, dependable, and capable of meeting the compliance obligations that it expects of sponsors.

As such you get assessed for the following:

  • HR systems & procedures: They visit the sponsor either before or after the licence is granted and check this, determining whether you are using the sponsorship management system and are able to properly report specific information about sponsored employees/roles. Changes in start dates or a skilled worker’s change of workplace are examples of events that call for reporting. Maintaining records of things like employment contracts, salary, and proof that any advertised positions are actually open is also part of your sponsorship responsibilities. These should be straightforward for most university SUs.
  • Compliance visits: The Home Office may conduct unannounced inspections to verify that your obligations as a sponsor are being met – including inspections at physical locations where the employees being sponsored perform their duties. They can request to speak with sponsored workers.
  • Background checks: This focuses on prior non-compliance by the sponsor and whether any key people in the SU have any pending criminal convictions for relevant offences.

What kind of tracking do we have to do?

Broadly, you have to report within 10 working days if the sponsored person:

  • fails to start work when expected;
  • has 10 days of consecutive unauthorised absence;
  • has their contract terminated earlier than expected, i.e. resignation; or moves into another immigration category.

You are also required to report to the Home Office any suspicions or evidence that an individual is breaking the conditions of their stay in the UK. Skilled worker sponsor licence applications take about 8 weeks to process, and there is no right of appeal for refused sponsor licence applications.

How much does it cost?

There are two levels of sponsor licence application fee:

  • Medium or large companies: £1,476
  • Small company or charitable sponsors (that’s SUs): £536

You have to pay the relevant application fee when you complete the online application form. It will not be refunded if your licence application is refused.

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