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Extend Covid-19 concessions, say UK universities

Despite assurances from UK Visa and Immigration that delivery plans are “on course”, there are growing sector concerns surrounding visa delays for incoming international students.

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According to a Home Office, the current turnaround is five weeks against a three week service standard

The worries are pressing as concessions introduced during Covid-19 allowing international students to study from overseas until they obtain their visas come to an end on June 30.

According to Gary Davies, pro vice-chancellor for student recruitment and business development at London Metropolitan University, the government’s policy to keep the borders open during the pandemic gave UK higher education a considerable advantage over international competition.

“We are in real peril of squandering that advantage if UKVI don’t allocate enough Confirmation of Acceptance for Studies to institutions and can’t scale up to cope with the demand to issue visas this summer,” he warned.

Institutions with May and June intakes have seen students struggle to get appointments and visas in time start programs.

“We have a world class higher education system in the UK that is very attractive to international students – please can we make sure that we don’t undermine our popularity by failing to put enough resources in place to get the students here?” Davies appealed.

“Please can we make sure that we don’t undermine our popularity by failing to put enough resources in place to get the students here?”

He is thankful that Covid-19 concessions are still in place, such as one which allows international students to begin their studies online in their home country until they can come to the UK to continue their course on their desired campus.

However, this blended learning concession ends imminently. Davies is not alone in wishing for an extension to these Covid-era rules.

Ross Porter, associate director for visa compliance and financial aid at London Business School, is worried that there will be no plan in place at all.

Speaking with The PIE News at the recent UKCISA conference,  UKVI was asked about the plan for beyond June 30 and the agency responded that it was not in a position to comment on its future approach.

“After their initial proposals were widely rejected by the sector several months back, I understand there is currently an approach sitting with ministers pending approval, but we have no idea what is in it or when that will happen,” Porter told The PIE.

“It’s a fundamental issue as it stops us being able to plan for the next academic year. Regulations have to be written and approved, which takes time.”

In Porter’s opinion, any major moves cannot be implemented in time for the start of the 2022 academic year.

“In reality, UKVI has already gone past the point where they will be able to force through any significant changes for 2022/23, so I think the best thing they can hope for now is an interim position that rolls over the current concession,” he said.

He said that he fed back to UKVI that this was a “wholly unacceptable approach to take”.

According to Porter, “it did come across very strongly that their hands are tied by ministerial decisions”.

Meanwhile, UKVI has undertaken a fairly extensive staff recruitment process to deal with backlogs and the upcoming expected surge for the September intake.

According to a Home Office spokesperson, the current turnaround is five weeks against a three-week service standard while it is “working to continue to reduce the current processing times as quickly as possible”.

There are plans to bring back priority services “ahead of the student peak”, a spokesperson added.

The Home Office repeated that it had been “prioritising Ukraine Family Scheme and Homes for Ukraine applications in response to the humanitarian crisis caused by Putin’s barbaric invasion of Ukraine”, as a spokesperson had said in May.

“But planning and preparations for the summer student surge are well underway and our delivery plans are on course for the summer,” the spokesperson added.

Oli Selwood, director of regulatory compliance at INTO University Partnerships, told The PIE that students have been “quite accepting” of the additional visa application processing time as they are understanding of the reason given by UKVI and of the situation in Ukraine.

However, “anxiety levels are rising”.

“We’ve started to get students enquiring about whether they can switch to online study because they’re worried they won’t be able to get their visas in time to start courses in-person,” he said.

Selwood has heard reports from multiple regional offices worldwide suggesting waits of up to eight weeks in places such China, regions of Africa and Saudi Arabia, while others report waits of five weeks.

Rob Carthy, director of international development at Northumbria University – an institution with a May intake – noted his institution has also been facing some challenges in terms of students securing their visa in time.

“If there isn’t any likelihood of rapid turnaround of visas then we are going to need the ability to continue to have students studying in a hybrid fashion,” he said.

“We’re not a distance learning university, it’s not our ethos. We will pivot back to blended if we need to, but we’d much rather have everybody face to face.

“Our concern is, we don’t want students to miss too much learning,” he concluded.

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