The closure of visa application centres around the world could prevent international students from reaching university campuses this September, according to industry stakeholders.
The centres are used to collect biometric information, documents and, in some countries, function as places to conduct in-person interviews with applicants – all necessary steps before a visa can be issued.
“There’s absolutely a risk that students won’t be able to get to the UK”
However, VFS Global, an outsourcing company that manages visa applications for governments, shows that Canadian, US, Australian and UK centres in multiple countries are closed due to the pandemic.
The closures are causing concern for universities and education agents across the world many of who are calling for governments to introduce greater flexibility around application requirements, so students can get to their destination countries.
“There’s absolutely a risk that students won’t be able to get to the UK,” Vivienne Stern, director of Universities UK International, told The PIE News.
“I think for us the question isn’t ‘will the September entry be affected?’ It is a question of how much and for how long.
“Also, how much will the flexibilities that we are able to put in place at the university level be able to overcome that set of difficulties?” she added.
Another concern is that when visa application centres do open, they will have a large backlog of applications that they need to process, something which could cause lengthy delays.
“The UK Home Office is well aware of the problems created by the closure of visa application centres,” said Stern.
“Up until now what we have been told is that they are pretty confident that when they are able to open up those centres, they will be able to, very quickly, deal with any backlog that has built up.
“But obviously the longer this goes on the more difficult that will be.”
However, the task of reopening centres and getting visas processed does not just depend on governments, according to Peter Yetton, head of VISA/assistant academic registrar at Glasgow Caledonian University in Scotland.
“You’ve got to get people back into the visa application centres,” he said.
“[Then ask] can they start working right away or do they need to be quarantined?”
Additionally, Yetton said, banks and financial sponsors will need to be available for assessment by the Home Office and UKVI.
“They will need to look and check, in some countries, the financial viability of that student [if they are] coming into the UK,” he added.
Catriona Jackson, chief executive of Universities Australia told The PIE that the organisation is aware of the “significant disruption to processing” caused by visa application centre closures.
“There are also a number of services relating to the visa application process that has been impacted by Covid-19 in many jurisdictions.
“These include access to panel doctors who conduct medical checks, English language facilities and biometric collection service delivery partners,” Jackson said.
Groups including UUKi and The American Council on Education are advocating for flexibility from their respective governments when it comes to requirements such as in-person interviews and biometrics.
“The longer this goes on the more difficult that will be”
“It is something we have been communicating with the department of state and asking for flexibility,” said Sarah Spreitzer, director, department of government and public affairs at ACE.
“So, for instance, could they allow for a virtual interview for a student applicant? Could they waive the in-person interview for those applicants that meet all of the other requirements and don’t appear to be ineligible?
“They’ve been doing that for some other non-immigrant visas, because of the fact that a lot of the consulates are closed,” she said.
Universities are currently preparing for outcomes where students are not able to reach campuses.
Plans include students starting their courses online before coming onto campus for face-to-face teaching once they are able to travel.
But there is a risk that the uncertainty around visa applications will make students less likely to decide to study abroad, according to Sushil Sukhwani, director of majorIndian agency Edwise.
Sukhwani also explained that commercial issues might arise around agent/university contracts and online/remote learning as a substitute.
“There’s a possibility that institutions may not have worded in their contracts that commission will be paid to agents for online programs, and whether the commission will be the same or less.
“People haven’t even started looking at that… but that is a potential concern,” he added.
The PIE approached the UK’s Home Office, the US Department of State and Canada’s department for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship for comment but did not receive a reply prior to publication.