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Agents speak: how do student visa processes compare?

Negotiating student visa applications is an ominous task. With foreign governments requiring evidence of financial background, letters of intent, biometric data and credibility interviews, an application takes months to prepare, followed by usually weeks of waiting for the decision.

US student visa application interview, Consulate General, Chennai, IndiaAll students who need a visa to study in the US must now undergo an interview. Photo: US Consulate General, Chennai.

“A good agent isn’t scared of the visa process. In some parts of the country, to students it is the number one thing”

Like it or not, visa processing carries weight when students are choosing study destinations; they know it can often be a subjective decision, and rumours swirl among peer groups about how likely a visa rejection might be.

A country’s immigration policy, local press coverage and its reputation in their homeland all affect students’ feelings on visa processing, says George Burke, international admissions and recruitment specialist at the University of Albany SUNY in the US.

“Individual bad episodes carry a lot of folklore”

“Individual bad episodes carry a lot of folklore,” he says. In China, it took recruiters five years to communicate improved practices at the US consulate “because the US had such a bad approach [to visa interviews] at first”.

And the impact of policy shifts (and subsequent press coverage) such as Trump’s attempt to halt entry to the US from selected countries “can linger for five to 10 years”, he relates.

It’s no wonder, then, that students seek the help of education agencies. Most agencies have dedicated visa application departments that follow immigration policy in host countries and maintain regular contact with foreign embassies. They step in after advisors have secured students’ confirmation of enrolment on a study course. And increasingly, the agency’s role might be only to provide visa processing services, as more students apply to courses directly themselves.

“A good agent isn’t scared of the visa process,” says Sushil Sukhwani, director at India’s Edwise International.

With more than four million students worldwide studying overseas, the visa application processes can’t be that great a deterrent to mobility. It’s merely a necessity, says Sukhwani, but students don’t always see it that way. “In some parts of the country like Punjab or a Sikh person applying for a Canadian visa, to them it is the number one thing. It’s like ‘oh my god, visa’.”

Agents often tailor their counselling depending on the student’s profile and likelihood of being granted a visa. For mature students, it’s especially challenging, recounts Anastassia Romanenko, managing director at Insight-Lingua in Russia.

“If they are 30-something and they’ve only been on holiday to Turkey, the UK probably won’t work for them”

“If they are 30-something and they’ve only been on holiday to Turkish hotels, then the UK probably won’t work for them,” she says. “We offer Malta or Cyprus quite a lot for them, where the visa is much easier.”

Nationality influences students’ chances as well. For applicants from Uzbekistan or Tajikistan, refusal rates are higher “because there is also a much higher rate of fake documents that they supply and the living conditions in those countries are poorer”, notes Romanenko.

“We recommend they go to Malaysia, because it’s culturally closer to them, and then at least they can have a certificate that they spent six months learning English abroad and they came back. It looks a little bit better on their profile.”

For this article, we spoke to admissions professionals and asked 20 major education agencies around the world – responsible for sending more than 150,000 students overseas a year – about visa application processes in the US, UK, Canada, Australia and China.

Canada has mountains to climb

If there was one visa process that agents said was the most difficult, it was Canada’s, despite its reputation as a country intent on growing its international education industry.

It’s “extremely old school”, said one Brazilian agent, while another in India describes the system as “unpredictable and they don’t specify the refusal reason”.

“In Canadian immigration law, it’s very clear that the officer evaluating your process has the right to his own interpretation,” says Ed Santos, director of operations and franchising at Canada Intercambio. Canada’s required documentation isn’t easily laid out on the Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada website and in addition to evidentiary documentation, students are encouraged to include a letter of explanation, the importance of which many agents underestimate, he says.

“It’s very clear that the officer evaluating your process has the right to his own interpretation”

The letter is an opportunity to address any questionable areas of the student’s application; it should “go directly to the point that could make the guy scratch his head,” Santos explains.

Because there is comparatively less guidance for visa applications, refusal rates in Canada are higher, one agent charged. In September 2016, IRCC put aggregated approval rates for temporary resident visas (used for short-term study) at 81% and study permits at 71%.

Canada is also known for having lengthy processing times. Agents reported that wait times for study permits could be as short as one week or as long as eight. The government has, however, taken steps to shorten wait times, including launching the Canada Express Study Program in Vietnam last year, which streamlines the visa process for students applying to selected colleges.

Also helpful is IRCC’s own website, which is updated weekly with current average processing times for temporary resident visas and study permits. As of February 6, for a student in China, it took 15 days to process a visitor visa and four weeks for a study permit. For an applicant applying from Brazil, the TRV processing time dropped to 10 days but the study permit was estimated at 10 weeks.

Australia’s streamlined system is swift

In July 2016, Australia rolled out a modernised, pared-down and entirely online visa application system, and trimmed visa categories from eight to two.

The Simplified Student Visa Framework extends streamlined visa processing – previously available only to students enrolling at a few providers – to all students, based on a risk assessment of their country of origin and institution.

“Australia is good at inviting agents to presentations about upcoming changes”

SSVF was by far the system that was most favoured by surveyed agents. “Australia’s system made it all online, which makes it easier for all of our students and branches to apply,” said an agent in Brazil.

Agents reported wide-ranging wait times, from 20 minutes to 15 days. In Nigeria, an agent reported eight weeks and a Brazilian agent said his students wait up to 60 days. According to the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, from April 1 to June 30, 2016, 75% of student visa applications were processed within 29 days.

Agents also praised Australia’s offline support. “Australia is good at inviting agents to presentations about upcoming changes,” said an agent in Brazil.

A Russian agent added: “Unlike Canada or the UK, where you submit an application and if something is missing it simply gets refused, Australian consular services contact us or the applicant if anything is missing and tell us which extra documents we need to provide.”

But like Canada, agents said Australia’s documentary requirements are burdensome. In addition to showing their confirmation of enrolment, the application requires students’ proof of finances through tax returns, employment history, bank statements or loans and information on the agent that has helped them apply.

The Genuine Temporary Entrant measure is the greatest point of subjectivity. Students must submit a personal statement explaining their immigration history, their circumstances, why they want to study in Australia and any documents to support their case. This could include their employment history, their CV, any previous certifications they’ve earned, or proof of a need for professionals in their field of study in their home country.

“Stakeholders are pleased that ‘ambush style’ phone interviews are no longer taking place”

But the current GTE measure is an improvement on previous editions, says Phil Honeywood, CEO of IEAA. “Australia’s Immigration Department argues strongly that it has now trained its locally engaged staff at most overseas postings to be much more attuned to cultural factors in their GTE interviews and assessments. Stakeholders are also pleased to hear that ‘ambush style’ GTE phone interviews are no longer taking place.”

Like other study destinations receiving large volumes of foreign students, national security concerns are also beginning to weigh in on policy debates and visa decisions in Australia. “These filters are having their greatest impact on postgraduate student applicants from certain countries, largely based on the student’s potential access to sensitive information,” says Honeywood.

US system: straightforward but not simple

The US application process is generally considered straightforward and efficient. Documentation requirements are relatively low and although interviews are required for some students, questioning is brief and students are told instantly if their visa has been granted.

But the DS-160 form, completed by students before their interview – requiring a photo, proof of return travel, dates of their last five trips to the US, and sometimes employment history and additional background information – can overlook particularities of student applicants.

“Students are facing a kind of ignorance by visa officials”

“The US’s system is not foolproof,” said one Indian agent, noting the DS-160 “has no specific questioning which highlights information specific to student visa applications”.

Another reports he has seen “great inconsistencies” in decisions for students opting for ESL, bridge or foundation programs. “Students are facing a kind of ignorance by visa officials,” he said. “It is time for the USA now to come up with a country-specific policy.”

Many said interview requirements are an added burden for students who have to travel to other cities for consulate appointments. And some agents said the interviews don’t give students time to explain their application.

“The student is given hardly a minute or two during the interview to present his case before the officer,” reported an Indian agent. An agent in Saudi Arabia added that there are no clear metrics for the interview. “Many times it depends on the case officer and his decision.”

Still, most agents reported acceptance rates above 90%. Acceptance rates for B1/B2 visas (used for short-term study) stood at 76% in FY15, according to the State Department. For F-1 visas, for long-term degree courses, the issue rate was 75%, and for J-1 visas, used for study exchanges, 88%.

Aside from the UK, the US is the only country in the sample where current politics are perceived to have a direct impact on student visa applications, though many agents still report relatively high acceptance rates.

“Nowadays, there are a lot of rejections because of the new government arriving,” reported an agent in Saudi Arabia, and the promises for additional tightening are casting a shadow on the process.

“Nowadays, there are a lot of rejections because of the new government arriving”

Martyn Miller, interim assistant vice president of the Office of International Affairs at Temple University in Philadelphia, says the university has been advising students that they need to be prepared for longer visa application appointment times and for visa appointments to be later than they might have hoped. “More and more people are required to do the interview, which of course puts a higher burden on the US consular officers.”

While Trump’s ‘travel ban’ may have been halted, the cancellation of the Visa Interview Waiver Program has not. All visa applicants must undergo an interview at a US consulate office.

“This was a big one,” says Miller. “Might this have a negative impact on individuals who might want to come to the US either as students or even as tourists? Absolutely.”

UK is objective but changes like the wind

In the UK’s points-based immigration system, visa categories and application requirements change regularly. Staying up to date is like “keeping pace with the wind”, one agent said.

However, the surveyed agents lauded the UK system’s objectivity. They credited simplified document requirements and an understanding that if the student has an “established clear direction for the future that is well supported and communicated by his/her choice of course and documentation”, the visa will be issued.

Keeping pace with changes to application requirements is like “keeping pace with the wind”

One Chinese agent said refusal rates, the level of requirements to apply and efficiency mean “the UK has the best visa application system”. Another commended “a good policy of 24-hour urgent service for study visas [that] wins students’ praise”.

Reported wait times for non-priority services were consistent among all agent responses. Visas processing takes 15 working days to three weeks, and as little as one to two days if students pay for priority processing.

And agents all reported UK approval rates of 95-100%. This is probably due to the government’s Tier 4 compliance regulation for higher education providers, rather than an abundance of welcoming visa officers. Institutions are kept on a tight leash; the government only allows Tier 4 licence holders a 10% visa refusal rate (it used to be 20% until 2014).

Home Office data for applications received between April 2015 and March 2016 shows that of 216 higher education institutions, only nine didn’t meet the 10% cut off. However, a cautious climate creates a tendency by institutions to reject applications they believe could perturb visa officers.

Providers using the six- or 11-month short-term study visa route, used mostly for language programs, don’t face the same stringent compliance regulations. But according to English UK, the average number of visa denials for state sector members rose from 7.5 per centre in 2014 to 8.2 in 2015, when the visa was introduced. Visa refusals among private providers rose from 6.2 to 8.2 per centre.

Surveyed agents didn’t mention the reduction in the number of UKVI-approved testing centres providing English language proficiency exams required for Tier 4 entry from thousands to a little more than 100. Nor did they highlight the abolition of onshore visa renewal for certain students taking further study. But these do present challenges.

“The major problem for us is the changes reducing the number of students that could apply for a visa once they are in the UK”

“The major problem for us now is the changes that came in this year in reducing the number of students or advanced students that could apply for a visa once they are in the UK so they can go from one course to another,” says Joanne Purves, the University of Sheffield’s director of global engagement.

“Students who get here and decide it’s not for them – which many British students do – would then have to return home to get a new visa to change their course, which is a significant burden… so you can end up having students on courses which they’re not suited to do.”

The UK’s credibility interviews, introduced in 2014 for countries considered high-risk, did come up in our survey responses. An agent in Nigeria said interviews are subjective and “can mislead visa application outcomes”.

So, given the many changes in recent years, the UK was surprisingly well considered by many agents. They sound a note of caution, however, about further change. In 2016, Home Secretary Amber Rudd announced a consultation to improve non-EU study and work immigration routes, but its results have yet to be released.

China – inconsistent but unlikely to reject

While many surveyed agents don’t send students to China, agents from Brazil and Russia said they found the visa application process confusing – but visa issuance is almost a guarantee.

China-bound students must apply for either an X1 visa if their study is more than 180 days, or an X2 visa if less. Documentary evidence includes a form and multiple copies of the prospective student’s school admission letter.

“It can take up to three months to find out the decision, or it could take up to a week. You never know”

Because of variable processing times, an agent in Brazil said they advise students to start the process three or four months before the course begins. “It can take up to three months to find out the decision, or it could take up to a week. You never know,” they said. “But we’ve never had visas denied. It’s hard, but you’re going to get the visa as long as you have all the documents.”

Students must deliver the application to the Chinese consulate, and the agent reported: “Sometimes you never know at the visa appointment what they’re going to ask for.”

David Goodman, head of China studies at Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University in Suzhou, acknowledges that “there are even inconsistencies in visa issuings from the same office”.

An agent in Russia added: “The Chinese long-term visa system is very complicated and there is very little correlation between the documents that the embassy requires from the institution and the documents that the institution can actually provide.”

However, in Russia, new visa centres allowing agents to apply on behalf of students could ease the process. China has also struck a slew of reciprocal visa agreements with the UK, Australia, Canada and the US on 10-year multiple entry visas for trade, tourism and to visit families.

With the all-important visa being a critical hurdle to overcome, talk of rare visa denials in China could soon start making more of an impact on future students’ decisions. They all seek a country that can help them achieve their ambitions – with the reassurance that they won’t be “rejected” before they begin.

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