by Charlotte King
Cardiff University is set to pay £50,000 processing visas for international students in time for the start of the next academic year. The university has agreed to set up an in-house ‘pop-up’ centre to provide extra appointments following concerns that there are not enough available appointments to process the 1,000 overseas visa applications from students undertaking pre-sessional English language courses in time for the start of the academic year.
Up until November 2018, students applying for visas to study in the UK were able to go through their local post offices to arrange their applications. However, the application service was outsourced to Sopra Steria last year and there are now concerns amongst UK universities that the company will be unable to process the anticipated 40,000 applications from international students before courses commence in September 2019.
As Sopra Steria took over the service, they made changes to the visa application process. Rather than applying for a document check via your local post office, as of last November, overseas students must now provide ‘biometric’ data alongside their applications in the form of fingerprints and a photograph, managed through appointments at government-approved centres. Currently, Sopra Steria provides 48 free-of-charge appointments per day in Cardiff. With the average waiting time for an appointment being two days, the university fears this is not enough to process all applications in time and is calling this “a serious service failure by the Home Office and Sopra Steria”.
The university fears that overseas students may begin to feel under pressure to opt for paid appointments or travel long distances to far away centres to ensure their visa is processed in time for the next academic year, putting unnecessary stress on students if this situation is not rectified. Moreover, in the instance that visa applications are seriously delayed, students could find they are unable to return home for Christmas and New Year because they will not be able to leave the UK before their visa application is approved; the university stresses that this must be avoided at all costs by ensuring applications are processed before the start of the academic year.
In light of these concerns, the Home Office suggested that Cardiff University invests its own money into providing a ‘pop-up’ service run by a separate outsourcing company, BLS, to ensure there are enough available appointments to process the pending applications. This led to controversy however with original budgeting estimates from the university pricing this ‘pop-up’ centre at £200,000 which Sopra Steria called “entirely unsubstantiated”.
A Cardiff University spokesperson told Gair Rhydd that at the time of the assessment, the original estimate was correct because each application was priced at £150-£200 to process. However, the university has stated that the cost per application has since been reduced to £50 per head, making the ‘pop-up’ service affordable and hence the university is going ahead with the idea.
The spokesperson has stressed however that “[the university was] given very limited time”, less than a week, to make a decision on whether to host the ‘pop-up’ service or not and additionally, they have stated that the university remains “seriously concerned about the situation in which the Home Office has placed us and our students” and stress that this matter must be properly addressed by next summer so the university does not have to “routinely spend significant amounts of money on something that really should be the UK Government’s responsibility.”
Jo Stevens, Cardiff Central MP, has stated that “any solution by the Home Office must come at zero cost to our universities or students themselves” and “asking Welsh universities to foot the bill is obscene.” Additionally, a Welsh Government spokesperson has told Gair Rhydd that “processing student visas is the responsibility of the Home Office and it is unacceptable that our universities need to pay for emergency measures to ensure overseas students are able to attend their courses in time.” The processing of student visas is not currently devolved to the Welsh Government.
Outside of Cardiff University, other universities have also expressed dissatisfaction with the visa application service for international students, and according to Universities UK (UUK), some students are finding themselves waiting up to a month for an appointment.
Moreover, many universities are unhappy that in most centres, students must pay for what has been dubbed “a woefully inadequate document-checking service” themselves. Sopra Steria is said to be charging £2.50 a minute to use its support line and a cost of up to £200 on top of one’s visa for a premium service. Cardiff UK Visa and Citizenship Application Service is one of only six centres across the UK to provide free appointments to applicants.
Speaking to the BBC, Alistair Jarvis, the chief executive of UUK, urged Sopra Steria to fix its “broken system” in time for the tens of thousands of applications which will roll in before September, stating that “Sopra Steria should be helping to send a more welcoming message to international students” because these students “make a huge cultural and economic contribution to the UK.”