From the February 2010 EL Gazette
UK IMMIGRATION minister Phil Woolas appeared on the BBC’s Newsnight programme defending his government’s immigration record. He noted that all students have to present themselves in person to the UK Border Agency (UKBA) or its ‘agents’ – private contractors who pass on visa applications to UKBA for scrutiny. The minister quoted a refusal rate for UK student visa applications from Pakistan that’s now risen to 42 per cent, evidence that his department was getting tough on immigration.
Mr Woolas mentioned that the visas system is now ‘much tougher, that’s why the universities complain to us.’ The Newsnight interview focused on ‘getting tough,’ rather than on facilitating the arrival of over 160,000 international higher education students into the UK every year, bringing in a total of £4 billion a year in student fees - 8 per cent of the higher education sector’s total income. Course fees of £10,000 a year are now ‘average’ in undergraduate science, and Imperial College in London seems to top the list of high international student fees, asking ‘up to’ £20,400 for one of its courses.
Higher education graduates are likely to go straight home afterwards, having contributed much to the economy. The debate in the UK is about ‘getting tough’, rather than ensuring the higher education sector continues to attract the high fee-paying students it needs to survive. The cost to universities of educating home (UK) and EU students is far higher than the £3,225 each student in these categories brings in annually - universities need to recruit international students to subsidise them.
But when the current university academic year started in October, universities found many of their international students had to start their courses late, or that these students lost their university places altogether, because of delays in getting Tier 4 (student) visas. London Student newspaper reported that at Queen Mary’s, part of the University of London, ‘about 25 students missed their chance to study here, because they did not get their visas in good time, despite having applied well in advance.’ The London School of Economics told the same paper that ‘some offer holders, especially from Pakistan, have had to defer to next year (academic year 2010-2011) and may conceivably be lost altogether.’
There’s an annual peak in Tier 4 applications in August for university courses starting in October. By October, the Guardian newspaper was reporting that universities had started filming lectures so visa delay-bound students could catch up on arrival. They had to finally close the door on these students in November.
What causes these disastrous visa delays? October saw the start of the first full academic year since The Tier 4 system for student visas came into full force in March 2009.. The UK Council for International Student Affairs (UKCisa) surveyed ‘affected students’ about their visa hassles. Their report, Tier 4: students’ experiences (applying from outside the UK) UKCisa identified ‘delays and backlogs’ resulting in ‘a significant numbers either arriving late for courses or not being able to arrive to all.’ Some initial difficulties with Tier 4 have been sorted out, but the problems remaining have the effect of discouraging students from applying for UK university.
The majority of students surveyed found visa applications relatively swift and hassle-free, with the application forms and guidance on websites relatively helpful, But a quarter of students surveyed had difficulties because their acceptance letters sent by universities don’t always fit UKBA’s - unclear – requirements. The Entry Clearance Officers (ECOs) who scrutinise applications ‘at times developed their own local interpretations of what was required,’ according to the UKCisa report, and ‘errors and obfuscation’ by ECOs and their commercial partners led to student visa applicants being ‘tripped up, put off… or even refused.’ .
UKBA’s commercial partners, such as Jerry’s in Pakistan, Worldbridge in Germany, and VSF Ltd in most of the world, came in for particular criticism. They seem to have very little knowledge of the new visa rules, according to the survey. One Bangladeshi student said the ‘behaviour of some staff at VFS is very rude and unprofessional.’
Other common problems were the hassle, time and expense of providing documents in translation and evidence of funds, and of students presenting themselves in person for biometric tests. One in ten students had to submit their visa application all over again, which meant travelling to re-submit their biometric data again too. Their fingerprints are unlikely to have changed in the meantime! Another student said the regulations for evidence of financial support changed three times during his application. The visa fee is £145, but many applicants said that having to provide all this evidence added at least an extra £200 to this.
Some students described getting ‘contradictory advice from the (UKBA) website and from consular staff,’ and a lack of advice services available by phone or email. Answers to email enquiries took up to five times as long as advertised. Family, friends and teachers proved to be a better source of advice to most students than UKBA website, with agents and university international offices proving more helpful than British consulates.
All this does obvious damage to the UK higher education sector’s reputation, when it’s becoming cheaper and easier to go instead to the other English speaking countries for a degree, or to continental Europe, where the English-medium university sector is booming. One student told the UKCisa survey that his parents had ‘forbidden’ himself and his siblings from studying in the UK, so disgusted were they with the visa application service.
Other countries that attract university students are getting tougher too, but their waiting times for visas are shrinking, not growing. In 2008, an applicant for a US student visa in Dubai would have to wait 56 days, now it’s down to three days. Strict though the application procedure for Australian student visas and the US F-1 student visa are, they’re an awful lot more straightforward than the UKBA’s rules. These rules – as Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced in December – will shortly change again.