At least 1,000 of the 3,000 students who come from Hong Kong to study in the UK each year will now seek alternative destinations, according to a consultant who advises students on their university applications.
Steve Lo, general manager of the International Studies Service Centre in Hong Kong, said students are applying to Australian universities rather than British ones because of the delays in processing UK student visas and the high risk that applications will be rejected.
“They have to start the programmes in the UK in early September but won’t get their public examination results until the beginning of August. As the visa process takes six to seven weeks, it’s likely that they will miss the start of term if they go to the UK,” he said.
In contrast, Australia takes about two weeks to issue a visa.
Under the UK’s new points-based immigration system, about 30 per cent of Hong Kong visa applications are being rejected or delayed by the UK Borders Agency, Mr Lo added, whereas Australia’s acceptance rate is close to 100 per cent.
“There have been so many changes to the requirements that parents and students don’t know exactly what they want,” Mr Lo said. “Hong Kong parents don’t really believe the British visa system will reject their children, because of the history and tradition of the two countries. They are beginning to realise that things have changed.”
In 2008, there were 2,980 student visa applications from Hong Kong, of which 2,877 were granted.
James Pitman, managing director of Study Group, the international education provider, said: “Even those students who apply on the day they get their results will only receive their visas on 15 September, six days after term starts here.
“As a result, counsellors on the ground who help students to apply for international education are advising them to apply for the Australian programme. Although interest in the UK is still high in the region, our agents report that students are worried about applying, and are therefore opting for the easier alternative – Australia.”
He added: “When you consider that these students are highly valuable to the industry in terms of fees and the other economic benefits they bring, the international dimension they add to our lecture halls and the resulting future diplomatic advantages, this is no small issue.
“Add to that the new requirements for biometric visas, an increase in visa fees from £99 to £145, swine flu and the recent introduction of ID cards for international students, and it is clear to see that one of the UK’s greatest hidden exports, estimated to be worth about £8.5 billion to the economy each year, is under serious threat.”
UPDATE - 20 JULY
The UK Border Agency issued a statement on 20 July in which it said that it was issuing visas in a timely manner, and that any delays were a result of tougher checks on applicants.
It said: “The vast majority of students in Hong Kong are having their applications decided within two weeks. The new system is simple, accessible and speedy and thousands of students around the globe have applied with no problems.
“We make no apology for carrying out tougher checks and by working with the education sector we have made every effort to ensure that the introduction of the points based system has been a success.
“There is detailed guidance on our website dealing with all aspects of the application process and we continue to work with stakeholders to address any concerns.
“The government will continue to welcome students who wish to receive a first-rate education, but they must first prove they are legitimate.”