A Home Office policy means that students must travel to the UK within 90 days of having been issued a visa, otherwise they have to reapply and pay a second fee.
“They want to come and we are stopping them”
Earlier this year, large numbers of ELT students who had been issued visas postponed their courses because of Covid-19, on the basis that they would take them later when it was safe to do so.
However, students whose visas were issued over 90 days ago will now have to apply for new visas, leading to concerns among the sector that they may decide to cancel their places.
Jodie Gray, interim chief executive English UK told The PIE that the policy could pose a serious financial problem for ELT schools who are already struggling because of Covid-19.
“At the moment ELT schools are doing what they do best, they are reopening, they are making their operations Covid-19 secure, they are doing their very best to bounce back. This is just an extra obstacle,” she said.
The UK’s ELT sector has been hit hard by the Covid-19 pandemic, with at least 15 English UK centres going into administration, while a recent report estimated that the economic loss for all English UK members would exceed £510 million for the first three quarters of 2020.
“These are students who have already paid for a course and gone and got a visa. They want to come and we are stopping them, and this is business that ELT schools in the UK desperately needs,” Gray continued.
To demonstrate the potential scale of the issue, English UK conducted a survey of 27 ELT centres to find out how many might be impacted by the Home Office’s policy.
From the 27 centres, there were 5,031 students with visas (representing 60,371 student weeks) who had postponed their English language courses due to Covid-19 and who would be affected.
There are currently more than 400 accredited ELT centres in the UK and each student’s net fiscal contribution to the UK economy is £216, according to English UK.
“We have taken unprecedented action to ensure students and educators do not suffer negative outcomes through the immigration system as a result of events beyond their control,” a spokesperson from the Home Office told The PIE.
“We have been very flexible during the pandemic and issued temporary concessions for students.”
The spokesperson said these include “allowing students to apply up to six months in advance of their course start date to give greater assurance they will be able to travel to the UK to begin their studies when circumstances allow” and “expanding the period in which they are able to travel to the UK once issued a visa from 30 days to 90”.
The spokesperson said that they are also replacing expired 30 day visa vignettes with 90 day vignettes free of charge where someone was unable to travel as a result of Covid-19.
“These measures demonstrate the government’s commitment to support our world leading education sector’s ability to recruit international students,” they added.
“The Home Office should honour their original promise”
However Gray at English UK challenged the Home Office’s claim that students and educators would not suffer negative outcomes through the immigration system as a result of events beyond their control.
“The Home Office promised early on that nobody would be disadvantaged who had to change their travel plans because of Covid-19 and this is clearly going against that original promise,” she said.
“The Home Office should honour their original promise and offer flexibility in this case, where students were unable to travel through no fault of their own.”
English UK is now calling on the UK government to further extend visa validity periods for those unable to travel during the pandemic and to enable students to extend the validity of six and 11-month visas where course start dates have been postponed.
These calls for further flexibility around visas were echoed by UKCISA, which advocated for extending and expanding flexibility in the visa system in its position paper.
“We want to ensure international students can continue to study in the UK and are not penalised for the ongoing impacts of the pandemic,” Anne Marie Graham, chief executive of UKCISA told The PIE.
“We would welcome further flexibility from the Home Office for students affected by this issue,” she added.