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UK: Russia visa centre delays compound tense situation

Delays to student visa processing in Russia – due to UK visa application centres being transitioned to a new commercial provider – are putting strain on a market already made fragile by political unrest and a weak ruble, The PIE News has learned.

"If processing times increase we will stop accepting bookings at the end of May instead at the end of June like in the past"

In the past two weeks, education agents have reported queues of up to five hours at visa application centres, students missing out on courses because their visa was issued too late and lack of communication from visa centre staff in the country.

“You used to have an immediate update of an applications status, now we have absolutely no idea what’s going on”

Earlier this year, the Home Office announced it would be ending its contracts with private visa centre VFS and switching to Teleperformance. On March 24,  Teleperformance opened five new centres, replacing VFS locations in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Ekaterinburg, Rostov on Don and Novosibirsk.

In its first two weeks of operation, agents say “the system isn’t working properly”.

“You used to have an immediate update of an applications status, now we have absolutely no idea what’s going on,” said Izabella Lauterpakht director at System 3 in Moscow. Previously, Lauterpakht says she received a response within 24 hours of making an enquiry, now “they don’t answer emails”.

“If we can’t help our clients with answering their questions, how can the clients trust us? It’s bad for business,” she said.

The Home Office says the visa application should take 15 days after an in-face appointment with a visa centre. Agents report that the process has been extended to up to four weeks, resulting in visas being issued after a course start date.

Julia Gribkova at Masterclass in Moscow says a group of students received their visas too late and the language school concerned didn’t refund the tuition. “Only one school gave a full refund on a two-week course,” she told The PIE News. “We are trying to offer another trip to the UK because the students were really disappointed.”

The complications are also causing some students to look to competing destinations.

“Some prefer not to choose countries with so many visa challenges, like Malta where it only takes 10 days to process a visa and they are more loyal to Russian tourists,” Elena Solomonova, director of Insight Lingua said.

The situation has left education agents worried that if the situation continues, it could cut into crucial summer school enrolments.

“If processing times increase we will stop accepting bookings at the end of May instead at the end of June like in the past. 10% of summer recruitment happens in June,” commented Solomonova, whose agency annually sends around 1,000 students to the UK.

Lauterpakht added, “We’re persuading parents not to back out. I’ve heard other agents say some parents are hesitant to pay for the courses in case the visa isn’t processed.”

Educators in the UK have already felt the impact and are equally concerned about the situation. Jennifer McAlone, Market Manager at London School of English says that bookings from Russia have been dropping since the beginning of the year due to the situation in Crimea, the exchange rate and sluggish processing at visa centres.

The situation in Crimea has exaggerated the effect that the exchange rate has had on business

“The situation in Crimea has exaggerated the effect that the exchange rate has had on business, although the situation was viewed rather different in Russia to the UK,” she said. “It has made students anxious of potential further sanction or difficulties during their course.”

Dave Stacey at SKOLA reported a group of 20 students has already cancelled along with a number of individual students.

Meanwhile, Chris Etchells, director of English Country Schools, reported that his business is at a risk of losing £120,000 of tuition fees from Russian students if the situation persists.

“Anecdotally, we’re hearing reports from parents that things in Moscow are a mess,” he said.

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