UKVI is taking a view about how much remote learning is permissible for international students

UKVI has shared a draft “remote delivery” policy with higher education providers for consultation. David Kernohan spots the gaps

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

During the Covid-19 pandemic, UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI) was forced to relax rules about international students and remote learning.

The original position was that students who had travelled to the UK to study at university also had to travel to their campus to do so with continued visa eligibility linked to attendance.

With the advent of Covid-19 restrictions, this clearly wasn’t sustainable – so from April 2020 to June 2022 concessions were in place to allow international students to study in any way that was possible at the time without prejudicing their immigration status.

As ministers, regulators, and the press have noted, the end of pandemic restrictions did not herald a grateful and complete return to the campus. Many students found that the flexibility afforded by remote learning options worked for them in terms of anything from learning preferences to the ability to squeeze in part-time work. The state of the art as it came to university level online learning had changed too – we were (briefly) experiencing one of those “the future is online” moments that turn up every decade or so.

If it was possible for home students to experience at least some of the benefits (or persist through some of the drawbacks, if you’d rather) of hybrid learning, and there were sound pedagogical reasons for this being the case, why should international students not get a slice?

A new policy is allowed

In January 2024 we understand that UKVI received ministerial backing to come up with a remote delivery policy. The key points of that instruction were, apparently, that:

  • face-to-face delivery remains the predominant delivery method
  • where a sponsor’s course delivery is planned to exceed a set percentage of remote delivery, sponsors will be required to justify why it is necessary, which will be considered as part of the sponsor compliance process.

So, doing the rounds of the sector at the moment is a draft policy, applying to undergraduate and postgraduate taught courses, as follows:

  • Remote delivery of between one and 20 per cent of a course is permitted without additional justification by any provider in good standing;
  • For remote delivery of between 21 and 40 per cent (“mainly face-to-face”) providers may be permitted (on a course-by-course basis) by application;
  • Courses with online provision greater than 40 per cent cannot be offered under the student route.

This immediately prompts a number of questions. First up, what is “remote delivery” for these purposes? Well:

timetabled delivery of learning where there is no need for the student to attend the premises of the student sponsor or partner institution which would otherwise take place live in-person at the sponsor or partner institution site.

The key word there is “timetabled”. This current hybrid learning revolution has thus far been predicated on “asynchronous learning” and stuff like lecture capture – learning that can take place on the night bus after a late shift. These guidelines only really apply to the direct transfer of timetabled sessions online – so if a lecture is livestreamed or delivered via Zoom that’s fine, but not the modes that are arguably more useful to students.

The problem also lies in the definition. If, say, a lecture is recorded – there’s arguably “no need” to attend. But if that means only 20 per cent of timetabled hours are usually allowed in that mode, it has the potential to incentivise universities to not offer recordings to a group of students who often say they need them.

One of the other perverse incentives therefore is that if a university wanted to keep doing lecture recordings, it might not define those hours as “timetabled teaching” at all – and instead only make, say, a recording available as an asynchronous resource. That would mean students that need, want, or value some of the hours they get in person with other students getting less of those hours overall.

More than a fifth

The next question has to be what the conditions are to apply for 21-40 per cent “remote” delivery? Well:

The sponsor is required to provide a justification for the higher percentage of remote learning and the justification is expected to be based on educational value, demonstrating how the usage is consistent with the guidance provided by the relevant educational quality standards body (OfS, QAA etc)

OfS has released two separate bits of guidance: former OfS chair Michael Barber’s boosterish Gravity Assist report, and De Montfort pro vice chancellor Susan Orr’s more measured blended learning review – neither of which have anything to do with what we may call the less formal guidance provided by ministers, the Telegraph, and various well-funded campaign groups that online provision is fundamentally an occasion of sin.

On that latter tip there is a student facing page (for all those students who read the OfS website?) urging them to report potentially “non-compliant” blended learning and a similarly scary OfS response to Orr.

So it is not clear what guidance UKVI is referring to. Maybe all of the above. We hear that UKVI has consulted with “the relevant regulatory bodies” around the UK during policy development, and that it “appreciates” that setting hard and fast percentages is a departure from regulators’ existing approaches.

Earlier feedback from the sector is said to have raised objections to setting percentage cut-offs, which UKVI hand-waves away by saying that they are ranges rather than fixed numbers. It’s still a very blunt instrument for making what at the end of the day are decisions about curricula.

It’s also proposed that permission for a 20-40 per cent course will have to be sought (course by course) before using any of the CAS allocation.


It will not have escaped your notice that UKVI is able to command universities to say what percentage of their courses are delivered remotely – something that OfS has singularly failed to do despite it being very much in the student’s interest to know.

Imagine, if you will, an applicant looking at Discover Uni (yes, I know, I know…) and being able to see that a course at one provider was delivered with 25 per cent remote learning but another is delivered entirely in-person.

Is that not the kind of a choice a student should be empowered to make with the relevant data? And if the data is being collected can we not publish it anyway (given it is clearly within the scope of the Freedom of Information Act)? Is it not a consumer right to have this information?

In fact, once a university is coding a course in this way internally, it surely instantly becomes “material information” that a university has to provide upfront, if you read the CMA’s May 2022 version of its Consumer Rights Act Guidance. Not doing so would surely be a potentially “misleading omission”.

We only have the rather sketchy definition above to go on (good luck student records officers with that one) and any data that does emerge will be, at least initially, garbage. But it does open up the possibility of a greater degree of transparency that will allow students to make course choices based on what mode(s) of delivery would suit them.

Immigration not education

This is, as UKVI says in its call for feedback, an immigration policy, not an educational policy.

But if the last decade or more has taught us little else, it’s that Home Office decisions are prime determinants of the size and shape of the sector, and with this pronouncement on how courses are delivered there is a further step into immigration policy affecting the nature of education – for all students on courses with international students, which is essentially all students.

The policy is still technically up for consultation – though it is dispiriting that this is a consultation that students appear to have no formal way to feed into. Though some of the niceties of data collection and a softening of the hard proportional boundaries are all on offer, it would make lots of sense to be talking to students and their SUs now before institutional responses go in.

If you are the person in your provider who got this letter, you have till 26 April to respond, and the policy will take force in September and be reviewed after the first year.

A Home Office spokesperson said: “We keep all our policies under constant review to ensure they best serve the UK and reflect the public’s priorities.”

3 responses to “UKVI is taking a view about how much remote learning is permissible for international students

  1. This was discussed at the recent ARC UKVI meeting and there was a very clear feeling that whilst this is not ideal, the reality was that it would not, or should not cause a great problem and that there was a lot of benefit in keeping the policy as vague as possible. It does not apply to PGR and it was made clear that individual student circumstances, where there were good reasons not to be on campus, would be ok.
    Rather like the attendance monitoring requirements the worst thing that the sector could do is to push for clearer definitions as to what is allowed.

  2. I find it remarkable that some organisations and individuals in the sector continue to talk about measuring “delivery” (in this case “remote delivery”) in percentage terms. What does “20% of a course” mean, exactly? It could refer to one of many things, such as 20% of…
    – the time that a student spends on synchronous (real-time) sessions.
    – the time that a student spends on the course overall, including asynchronous work and assessments.
    – the hours of study needed to complete a course or module as per the specification document.
    – the time that staff spend on synchronous teaching for the course.
    – the time that staff spend on the course overall.
    – the number of credits allocated to the module or course.
    – the weighting of certain module(s) within the overall course or programme.
    – something else.
    Can anyone really put a figure on this level of vagueness with any degree of seriousness? Consider this: “My course has a 20.83% of remote delivery components”. “Oh, mine has 19.1%”.
    This is nonsensical. UKVI should learn about how these things work before drafting a policy like this.
    In any case, I prefer to leave “delivery” issues to the likes of Amazon and the Royal Mail. Let’s teach well instead, across all modes of study.

  3. Both Alejandro and “BJH” make excellent points – to me the best way forward is to (a) ensure the guidance stays vague but (b) informed by research and good practice from long-established experts in the online learning field.

    It would also do no harm for UK providers and regulatory agencies to peep over the parapet a bit and see what other countries are doing.

    I don’t want to be boring but I am duty bound to mention in the the FE/TVET sector the concepts of “learning hours” and “guided learning hours” are used routinely without the sky falling in and without having to get too precise.

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