Tales of student visa bureaucracy

The visa process can trap students in a costly Kafkaesque limbo. To improve life for foreign scholars, the sector should halt its failed lobbying over policy and focus on publicising the misery caused by Byzantine bureaucracy, argues Simeon Underwood

February 21, 2013

Source: Getty

I would like to tell you what recently happened to one of our students. Let’s call him Joseph K. He is an international student, but his nationality does not matter. Actually, his gender is immaterial, too. It is just that the name Joseph K relates to Franz Kafka’s The Trial, and that suits his story.

Joseph K is a PhD student. As a reader of Times Higher Education, you do not need to be told that some doctoral candidates must travel overseas in pursuit of their studies, but I mention this as it is relevant to what follows.

Joseph K’s student visa expired on 31 January 2012. Not realising this, he “overstayed” in the UK by just a few days. He then travelled out of the country. On his way back, he was asked by the immigration officer at the airport why he was returning to the UK. When he explained he was a PhD student, the officer was very friendly and helpful - some of them are - and she stamped his passport to allow him entry for two months. She said that she had granted him full permission to study but that he should apply to the UK Border Agency from within the country to sort out his slightly untidy immigration status.

Technically this was odd. Usually in such circumstances non-visa nationals can enter the UK only as student visitors; they are granted a six-month stay; and they cannot apply to extend it from inside the UK. But in any event, Joseph K needed to put his status on a proper footing, not least because he had further travel plans.

He therefore booked an appointment at the public enquiry office in April last year to apply for his student visa in person (this is a scheme where the student normally gets a decision on the same day). When he went to the office, he was assured that his application was valid and that it was OK for him to apply from inside the UK - but he was also told that the UKBA needed to make further checks. So he cancelled his travel plans and waited.

Come July, he was still waiting. We made enquiries on his behalf and were told, to our and his alarm, that his application was about to be refused because he had been stamped into the UK as a student visitor. So Joseph K then had to do the following: withdraw his visa application before it was refused; leave the UK; gather the necessary documentation afresh to apply again from his home country; and - because of the disruption to his PhD programme - apply to us for an extension of registration. He applied for his visa in September. The UKBA said it had to make still further checks. It was finally granted in October.

There are plenty more stories about students caught up in complications of this kind. Perhaps the most poignant is the story of Baby K. Her parents were here on old-style, pre-2009 student visas, but she was careless enough to be born after the new regulations were in place. At one point the UKBA forgot that the rules were different pre-2009 and incorrectly returned the visa application that her parents had made on her behalf, saying that the wrong form had been used when it had not been. This became more tortuous because in 2012 the UKBA changed its rules in error and for a while did not recognise family units of student plus student plus child. (The matter was complicated further because the couple had their passports stolen, but that is another story.)

Students who get tangled up with the UKBA have to pay for the privilege. This can include additional fees (to cover the provision of biometric information and police registration, for example) and extra costs (printing, photographs, postal orders, phone calls - usually on premium lines - translations and travel to various public enquiry office branches). Some students pay out £500 or more on incidentals of this kind. There is a “premium service fee” for the privilege of going to a public enquiry office and getting a decision on the same day: £716. There is even a “super premium service”, where the UKBA sends around a courier and a mobile biometric unit: this costs a mere £6,000.

The UKBA is not the only one to have spotted income generation possibilities in this area. Earlier this academic year, many international students got calls from fraudsters pretending to be UKBA officials and demanding money with menaces: we know of one student who lost several hundred pounds before she sought advice.

Students caught up with the UKBA also have to be patient. When one applies for a student visa from within the UK, the agency works to a time period of between four and 14 weeks to handle the application. But as the student experiences it, there is a preparatory period and a mailing period after the UKBA has reached its decision, which can add many weeks to the process. Throughout this time the student is without a passport: and this year, once again, many students were stranded in the UK over Christmas.

But I am not telling you all this to belabour the UK Border Agency. As an administrator myself I can empathise, even sympathise with the problems it faces, such as erratic policymaking and inadequate resource. Instead I want to use the story of Joseph K to argue that the sector needs to change its strategy for lobbying on student visas.

Its main lobbying line so far has been the damage that government policy may do to universities in the future. This is supported by anecdote and selective use of data, most of it year-on-year rather than trend data over a sustained period. If the government is to change its mind in such a high-profile area, it is entitled to expect something rather more robust and evidence-based - evidence is, after all, supposed to be a stock-in- trade of universities’ research efforts.

Deportation demonstrators

I was eager to return home over Christmas and could not travel. I think it’s incompetence on the part of the UK Border Agency that they cannot process applications more quickly

One issue the sector has pushed in particular is the idea that students should be omitted from the net migration statistics. Apparently five select committees agree with us. But it is not obvious what difference this would make.

The government and the UKBA are clearly committed to the notion of institutional sponsorship of individuals with visas. You can see it from their side: it gives them greater knowledge of where visa-holders are within the UK; and it makes someone else responsible for the visa-holders’ whereabouts.

There are two bare minima to sponsorship. One is that the sponsor tells the authorities that it accepts responsibility for the visa-holder before he or she enters the UK. The other is that it tells the authorities if the visa-holder leaves the UK unexpectedly, which in turn entails at least some form of attendance monitoring. Even if students were omitted from the statistics, it is unlikely that the administrative apparatus built up over the past four years would be dismantled. The only plus point here is that it would give the government leeway to rethink some of the arbitrary rules it has put in place, such as the cap of five years on degree-level study.

Another reason why the sector needs to rethink its lobbying policy is that it has not worked. This much is clear from the speech given by the home secretary, Theresa May, shortly before Christmas and from the recent THE interview with the immigration minister, Mark Harper. The speech in particular was fervent in its self-belief and frequent in its self-congratulation. The government believes that what it is doing is right and is starting to work. There will be no changes to policy in the remaining life of this Parliament, merely more fine-tuning - even if, from our side, “fine-tuning” comes across as tampering and involves rather more work for us and our students than the word implies.

So what should the sector do? I would propose that its approach should have two strands.

The first is to draw up a shortlist of winnable aims. Top of my personal shopping list - although this may be divisive - would be restoration of the concept of “highly trusted sponsor” to its first intention, which was to give preferential treatment and support to institutions with good performance indicators in the key areas.

The second is where Joseph K comes back in.

According to the Greek poet Nikos Gatsos, “travellers from India have more to tell than the chroniclers of Byzantium”. I am not sure this is necessarily true. But for present purposes I want to argue that people’s stories can have more impact on the public and politicians than arguments based in policy.

For example, last October the media ran several stories about police registration, an issue immediately adjacent to student visas. You may recall footage of students queuing through the night to register with the police in London, only to be turned away when the office opened. Actually, this has been an issue for some years now, and the London universities have made reasoned and reasonable complaints about it. But the footage has put this on the agenda of the government and the police authorities. If, as seems possible, there are changes for next year, that will be down to the media coverage as much as to our lobbying efforts.

We can trust our students to be articulate advocates for their cause. One might expect indignation, even anger. But when, within the London School of Economics, we have done surveys of students’ views of aspects of visa policy, the tone of the responses has been dignified hurt and puzzlement. This is the voice of the father of Baby K (who did get her visa in the end): “It has been quite frustrating that despite our previous professional and academic qualifications, and particularly all the financial resources we have brought to the UK, we have to face so many complications in renewing our visas and that as a group we are sometimes portrayed in a rather negative way in the newspapers in immigration debates.”

Moreover, the government has now put the student at the centre of the system. In particular, the National Union of Students is inside the tent. The wild-eyed radical leaders of the past, such as Jack Straw and Stephen Twigg, have been replaced by decent young men in suits. The NUS has helped the government in developing some of its central policies, notably the Key Information Set, which ticks the government’s boxes on information about university courses. Perhaps it could ask for something in this area in return?

Sector bodies and universities should work with the NUS and students’ unions to put students at the centre of the visa debate - to put them and their stories ahead of policies and statistics.

People waiting in airport

It has been frustrating that we face so many complications in renewing our visas and that as a group we are sometimes portrayed in a rather negative way in immigration debates

‘We pay large sums of money; our applications merit some urgency’

A fifth-year engineering student at the University of Glasgow who comes from South Asia has waited months for his visa to be renewed.

“I was recently required to apply for an extension on my student visa since I decided to stay on for a master’s,” says the student. “I sent my Tier 4 application on 9 October, but haven’t received my visa or my passport back from the UK Border Agency.

“I was eager to return home over Christmas but could not travel.

“I think it’s incompetence on the part of UKBA that they cannot process applications more quickly. It is the norm for them to respond saying they have a huge number of applications at peak times. But being the large organisation they are, they should…employ temporary staff over peak periods to ensure visas are processed on time.

“After all, we pay quite large sums of money for the process, as well as our tuition fees at university - [our applications] deserve to be treated with a bit of urgency.”


‘Getting a graduate entrepreneur visa extension is impossible’

A Chinese MBA student at Newcastle University says that obtaining a visa extension under the new Graduate Entrepreneur scheme is “impossible” because of the red tape involved.

Under rules introduced in April last year, students may stay for up to two years after graduating if they are identified by universities as “having developed world-class innovative ideas or entrepreneurial skills”. Up to 1,000 non-European Union students - a maximum of 10 per institution - can benefit each year.

However, applying is fiendishly difficult, the student explains.

“The regulation says that to apply for this category, you need to have a certain amount of money in your bank account for three months, get the qualification from a recognised UK university, have a valid student visa and be endorsed by your university,” she says. “However, [for a university] to issue an endorsement, the student needs to have the qualification from their university.

“We, as master’s students, get our qualification in late November, and our visa expires in January the next year.”

This leaves less than three months from gaining the qualification to the visa expiry date.

Within this time, “we need to get the endorsement, prepare the money that needs to stay in our bank account for three months and submit our application, which the UK Border Agency suggests submitting at least 20 days before the expiration of our visa”, she says. “It is impossible.”


‘This is a thankless country. I tell my friends, don’t bother studying in the UK’

Uzma Muneer, 28, from Pakistan, has just completed an MBA programme at BPP University College.

She began her studies at Tasmac London School of Business in June 2011 but transferred to BPP after Tasmac, whose degrees were accredited by the University of Wales, closed suddenly in October 2011.

Muneer, who is married and has one child, worked for a Tier 2 sponsor- licensed employer throughout her studies and hoped to get a full-time job on graduation.

“My boss wanted the company to sponsor me for a Tier 2 job offer, but my dream of working for experience in the UK has been shattered,” she says. “Before April 2012, the UK Border Agency job requirement was for a role of £20,000 a year. For the same role, it is now almost £32,000.

“The new starting salary is one that a lot of graduates will only earn after several years of experience - it is at least 30 per cent above market rate. It seems like a nice way for the UKBA to finally close the doors.”

Muneer received several graduate job offers in London, but none satisfied the salary requirements laid down by the UKBA. She has now accepted a job in the Middle East.

“My time in the UK has been tough, and looking at the news every day, I feel like a criminal for simply wanting to study here and work here,” she says. “It seems like all the people who are on benefits are there because of students like me. How? I paid my tuition fees, visa fees, private rent and private daycare for my child.

“We buy our food, pay our bills and buy our items for use here, whether they are clothes or appliances. Yes, I did use the NHS six times during my two years here for my child when she was sick. Other than that, my husband and I have never fallen ill enough to need to go the doctor.

“With so much propaganda against immigrants, we do not want to spend any more money or time here. This is a thankless country with borderline racism.

“I do not want my child to be scoffed at for being an immigrant, and that is why I will look at more welcoming countries to move to. My friends who have asked me about studying here - I told them, don’t bother. And will I want my child to study here? Probably not.”

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