Why I ...think the new visa extension charges should be scrapped

August 8, 2003

It sounds like something out of the "Uday and Qusay Hussein Handbook on Public Administration". A declaration that students of a particular background shall henceforth pay high charges devised by a mysterious paperwork authority to complete or continue academic activities. Simply put, it's a "no pay, no stay" policy for foreigners. Targeted scholars are naturally left to grapple with three difficult choices: drop out and leave the country; refuse to pay and go into hiding; or simply cough up the dosh.

These draconian developments were inaugurated here last week. At issue is the Home Office's seemingly capricious implementation of new charges for consideration of applications to extend the "leave to remain".

Unsuspecting international students needing more time to complete or continue studies are being administratively ambushed for £155 for applications by mail or £250 for so-called premium service in person.

This comes barely four years after the prime minister declared that he would alleviate visa formalities for international students to bolster the worldwide appeal of British higher education. And it's not just colleges and universities that benefit from these students: they are estimated to spend £1.3 billion a year off campus.

It used to be that UK airport immigration officers determined extension requests in minutes without 17-page application forms, without 13-week delays and without charge. But on July 10, Home Office minister Beverley Hughes claimed: "Many (foreign students) apply to extend their stay each year, and it is right that they should meet the costs of that." Ukcosa, the council for international education, has noted that "many students... wait months or in some cases even years for a decision on their application".

Perhaps the unexplained charges derive from the cost of finding space for cartons of posted applications throughout the 13 weeks in which they "should" be processed.

There is more that the Home Office does not spell out. For example:

* Student visa extensions can no longer be made at airport immigration counters. Recently, relevant stamps were taken away from airport immigration officers and their powers of discretion curtailed. And yet, in some cases, if a visa expires while a student is abroad, a new one can still be obtained at the airport at no cost

* Each time an international student's life takes an unexpected turn along the road of personal academic progress, they may have to reapply for a visa and meet the additional charge. Such events could include having to defer an exam, change the course of study, spend more time on a dissertation, recover from an illness, make an emergency journey home or stay for the graduation ceremony

* If the visa of a spouse or child of an international student does not expire at about the same time, each may need a separate application accompanied by its own fee and additional waiting time for the entire family.

Although the fees do not apply to all students (for example, European Union citizens are exempt), those affected - and ultimately their universities - will be vulnerable to an ill-devised, misleadingly introduced and insensitively implemented charging scheme. The new fees were announced just three weeks before implementation, when most students were on holiday. And the Home Office declined to consult either the public or bodies such as Universities UK and Ukcosa.

What a welcome awaits the international students who will begin or resume studies in coming weeks. Many will learn of the new charges only once they reach the UK. They will be gobsmacked to discover at the airport that they will henceforth be liable to pay exploitative fees that they never contemplated or budgeted for when selecting a British university as their place of study.

Sharone Parnes is an American-Israeli postgraduate law student at the University of Buckingham

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