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International students finding alternative destinations after UK visa delays, say agents

Some students who had planned to start UK university courses in the autumn missed their start dates due to visa processing delays, according to education agents. 

A boat in front of London Bridge.Visa processing delays in the UK caused some students to miss their start dates. Photo: Pexels.

Fees for student visas increased by 35% in October

“The visa delays are like we have never seen before,” said Sushil Sukhwani, founder and director of Indian agency Edwise International. “There are delays [and] increased processing times for the priority visa as well as the super priority visa from all locations in India.”

Delays were also reported across sub-Saharan African countries. The autumn intake was the last chance most students had to bring their spouses and children with them before the ban on dependants kicks in from January 2024

Agents working with students who have missed their start dates said that while some are planning to defer, others are now looking at alternative options to the UK. 

Average processing times for student visas were three weeks in May 2023, when data was last publicised, in line with Home Office targets. 

In response to claims about visa delays, a Home Office spokesperson said, “We continue to meet our target to process straightforward applications in 15 days, with even faster times for our priority services.

“Where applications are complex and we require further information or checks, decisions may take longer. This is to prevent abuse of our immigration system and non-genuine students such as those who use the route to claim asylum in the UK.”

“Student visa delays are common around peak times”

Jamie Hastings, director at MYiO education agency, said, “Student visa delays are common around peak times, especially prior to the September intake when thousands of student applications are being submitted daily.”

He suggested establishing a working group between UKVI and key stakeholders “to review the opportunities and challenges… to mitigate future delays and identify areas that can be tightened up”. 

“The cost of student visas, priority processing and the health surcharge is at a premium and therefore people paying these costs expect a service level that reflects what they pay for,” Hastings added. 

Fees for student visas increased by 35% in October, meaning a student applying from overseas will now pay £490. 

Agents in certain markets also said visa refusal rates appeared to be increasing for the next intake in January. 

Naz Panju, director of education agency BCIE, said her organisation hadn’t run into problems with visa processing directly but had been approached by university partners for support after their direct-entry students from Nigeria experienced unexpected refusals. 

“They’ve had some delays in applications being processed and we’ve also had refusals that are… out of the ordinary,” she said. 

She added that visa refusal rates had generally been lower in recent years and this may be a sign that UKVI is growing more discerning. 

“If it is happening, it’s good for the industry,” Panju said. 

Initial data suggests recruitment to the UK from India and Nigeria may be on the decline after a boom period and Home Office statistics also showed growths in visa issuance began to slow in 2023. 

In a joint statement, BUILA and Universities UK International confirmed that some institutions had reported visa delays affecting September’s intake but added that other global issues had impacted recruitment more widely.

“International student recruitment appears to have been impacted due to increasing competition from overseas – with the US and Australia reporting strong growth and bouncing back to pre-Covid levels – UK visa policy changes, as well as the changing economic circumstances, especially in China and Nigeria,” the organisations said. 

“With the full impact of the UK government’s reforms yet to be felt across the sector, and international student recruitment growing increasingly competitive, it will be important for BUILA and UUKi to continue to work closely to support our collective membership and monitor recruitment trends ahead of January and beyond.”

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