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UK: Int’l students paying for “woefully inadequate” doc-checking service

International students at UK universities are facing costly and “woefully inadequate” services in applying for visas, after parts of the application process were outsourced to a government-contracted company charging up to £200 for appointments.

Universities have taken issue with the added costs incurred by applicants who have to use the company's services. Photo: ukvcas

Many who are paying between £100 and £200 for premium appointments still cannot get one

According to Universities UK, French IT services company Sopra Steria is unable to meet demand from applicants in the UK, with some students waiting 30 days to get an appointment.

“Students and universities cannot be expected to pay to address Sopra Steria’s broken system”

Universities have taken issue with the added costs incurred by applicants who have to use the company’s services.

UUK noted that applicants having issues with the online system are being charged £2.50 per minute to access a support line, and a result of the delays some students are paying to fast track their appointments and travelling to one of Sopra Steria’s centres, often many miles away from where they live.

Additionally, many who are paying between £100 and £200 for premium appointments still cannot get one and some are refused a refund of the money they pay.

Chief executive of UUK Alistair Jarvis said the company’s offer is unacceptable.

“Despite constructive engagement between the Home Office, UKVI and universities, the current capacity and level of service being offered by Sopra Steria remains unacceptable,” he said in a statement.

“Students and universities cannot be expected to pay to address Sopra Steria’s broken system.”

UUK is calling on Sopra Steria to fully address the concerns before the September surge when in excess of 40,000 students will need to register their biometric details, Jarvis added.

According to the organisation representing 136 universities across the UK, Sopra Steria recently began to offer pop-up services at campuses, however, the 15-minute appointments will cost £50, and be paid for by the student or university.

“International students make a huge cultural and economic contribution to the UK,” Jarvis added.

“Sopra Steria should be helping to send a more welcoming message to international students, signalling that the UK is open to talented individuals from around the world, as is the case at our universities.”

In 2018, Sopra Steria was awarded a £91m contract to deliver “a more streamlined application process from over 60 locations across the UK, including 56 local libraries”.

At the time managing director of the company’s government business, Adrian Fieldhouse promised a “great customer experience”, and said people would be offered to pay more for added value services to “create their own bespoke service to meet their specific needs”.

Additionally, UUK noted that students cannot travel when they have an outstanding visa application. If the service continues to be inadequate, some visiting students may be unable to travel home for the Christmas holidays, it highlighted.

Cardiff University recently warned that a lack of free visa appointments threatened ample time to process 1,000 of its students’ applications by autumn, and an on-campus pop-up service could cost between £150,000-£200,000.

Unable to find an appointment in Cambridge, Elisa Calcagni, a PhD student from Chile at the University of Cambridge, chose to pay £100 for an appointment in Croydon.

“Despite booking a timed appointment, there was a waiting time of an hour and then the system wasn’t working properly leading to further delays,” she said.

“Despite booking a timed appointment, there was a waiting time of an hour”

A spokesperson for Sopra Steria told The PIE News that the business is working closely with the Home Office, universities and higher education institutions across the UK to deliver the Tier 4 visa application service.

“This is tailored to each institution’s needs to provide greater student convenience and choice,” the spokesperson said.

“We are focused on adapting the service to respond to areas of greatest demand and are increasing capacity where needed.”

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