Paul Wordsworth laments the academic isolation caused by visa privatisation

Paul Wordsworth warns that the privatisation of visa applications is hampering academics’ ability to collaborate internationally

October 2, 2014

As a citizen of the UK it was only towards the end of my undergraduate degree that I even considered the need for international visas as a potential hindrance to movement across the “global village”. Even then, the gloss of an ornate page-sized permit was an exotic rite of passage, well worth £50 and a trip to an embassy.

Subsequently, when considering funding applications for humanities doctoral research, I boldly exercised my European rights and opted for a PhD fellowship in Denmark, without a second thought. In Copenhagen, I encountered several non-EU expat researchers, who, while having been granted unfettered access to the extraordinarily rich diversity of academic institutions in the Schengen Area, struggled to visit UK universities for important meetings and short courses.

One colleague wanted to attend a two-week PhD-level short course at a London university. I helped him follow the online guidelines. Having been redirected through a series of menus and a digital application form, he had encountered several unclear options in the dropdown menus. No further help was available, and the premium hotline of the local privatised visa centre was unable to give advice. More than two months later, the application was categorically refused. Although, again, no explanation could be elicited from the private company to which visa applications in Denmark have recently been outsourced, he presumed it was because he had selected the wrong dropdown option. No refund was offered and there was not enough time to reapply.

Three years later, I am part of a project at the University of Oxford, whose dual aim is research and network-capacity building in Afghanistan. In addition to our work with individuals in their own country, it was recently proposed that we invite several Afghan colleagues to Oxford for a workshop on some of the major project themes. Researching the necessary visa process for Afghan nationals, I was promptly redirected to another private company, Gerry’s International, which acts as the regional processing centre, in Pakistan.

It eventually became apparent that not only would our visitors – some of whom are senior members of national institutions – be required to fly in person to the neighbouring country (which, of course, has its own visa restrictions) to apply and submit their biometric information, but that they would have to wait there for an unspecified amount of time, perhaps two weeks or more, to hear if they had been successful and collect the necessary paperwork. Furthermore, the blurring of responsibility between the British government and the private company means that it is again impossible to enquire after the necessary information to maximise the chances of a smooth and successful application. While in this instance we have the luxury of being able to invest time and funds in making the applications, for individuals visiting the UK for conferences or short courses, these issues are potentially insurmountable.

As the UK Border Agency – or UK Visas and Immigration, as it is now known – hands over the lucrative authority to process visa applications to private companies in more and more countries, the procedure becomes ever more opaque and prohibitively expensive. The result is the exclusion of a rapidly increasing number of nationalities from British academic networks – at a time when substantial British and European funding is directed towards initiatives fostering new international collaborations.

The future of the academic world is undoubtedly digital and the speed at which technology has transformed higher education is extraordinary. A staggering example on Afghan soil is Nancy Dupree’s groundbreaking Afghanistan Centre at Kabul University, which opened this year; the centre’s projects include scanning huge numbers of its books, maps and newspapers to give Afghan students unprecedented access to published materials.

Many would argue that online academia is diminishing the need for expensive, short-term academic visits, or even for relocation when offered a job abroad. But is it really sufficient to interact face to face on the web instead? The enduring popularity of international congresses, be they for global leaders or niche research groups, clearly indicates not. The ability to physically interact with peers and to be a part of the worldwide academic community is a privilege practically inseparable from the profession.

The government’s decision to privatise visa application processes places even the most venerable and respected global specialists at the whim of clumsily organised local companies, while civil servants effectively wash their hands of responsibility for the propagation of international academic networks. It is certain that without due pressure to change this state of affairs, UK scholars will find themselves on the receiving end of similarly prohibitive travel restrictions imposed by other countries, and increasingly isolated from the international community.

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