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Visa delays in key UK market see students miss out on January starts

UK visa delays are leaving students in Pakistan out of pocket after they missed the beginning of the January intake at UK universities.

Some students are missing so much of the start of term they are having to defer. Photo: iStock

In Pakistan, there is a perception that UKVI is intentionally delaying visas

Agencies confirmed to The PIE that students, including those who had paid for priority visa processing, have had applications delayed by months.

Universities have in turn withdrawn CAS letters for the January intake.

Agents now say that students will lose out as both visa fees and priority visa service fees are non-refundable. In addition, students will be responsible for covering the expense of transferring tuition fees and any currency fluctuations, they say.

FES Consultants, which has 10 offices across Pakistan, said 50% of its January intake to multiple institutional partners had been affected by the delay.

“We have cases where students submitted their applications in the middle of December who are still awaiting their visa decision – and it’s almost the last week of February,” said managing director, Syed Shujaat Ali Shah, told The PIE.

Managing directorTimes Consultant, Haris Dhanani, said that more than 250 of the agency’s students had been impacted by the delays. Across Pakistan, the total numbers are likely to be in the thousands, he added.

In 2021/22, UK universities hosted some 23,075 students from Pakistan, up from 12,975 the previous year, according to HESA statistics.

Estimates from some in the sector place the total number of students from Pakistan applying for this year’s January intake at around 10,000-12,000.

When a CAS is issued, universities usually allow two weeks after the beginning of the term for a student to arrive late – in some cases, they will extend it to three weeks.

However, students have been advised that extending the enrolment period any further would not be feasible, Dhanani added.

“[Universities] expressed concerns that new students would have difficulty catching up with the course if they were to enrol late,” he told The PIE.

Akif Khan, country director for University of Hertfordshire, noted that as universities have faced “sluggish” applications from Nigeria and India, they extended deadlines to January.

Some were granting CAS to applicants in January while in previous years, the cut off point would be mid-December.

A handful of institutions are also considering introducing April intakes as they face financial pressure, he added.

Students who have paid up to £500 for priority visa processing have been left waiting just as long as those who had not paid for the special service.

“There are cases where they have been waiting for the visa decision for almost 40 to 45 days. This even applies to the priority services,” Shah confirmed.

“There is even a delay for some between getting the decision letter from the UKVI and getting the email from VFS Global [who sets up the interviews] for passport collection.

“This again is creating a problem. Normally it only takes a day between these emails… [but at the moment] it can take seven to 10 days to get that passport collection email from VFS. That is an additional waste of time for the students,” Shah added.

UKVI’s wait time stipulates that priority applications should come through within five working days, with the maximum time being 30 days. 

The Home Office says that refunds for service are possible, but are decided on an individual basis and can only be given if fingerprints and photos have not yet been submitted as proof of identity in-person.

Students are being told to withdraw their applications themselves as if universities do so, the automatic visa refusal that follows could mark the applicant’s record if they attempt to reapply or defer their studies.

“Students invested four to six months in making the university and visa applications”

The students will also be subject to increased Immigration Health Surcharge costs, which rose by 66% on February 6, Dhanani added.

“Students invested four to six months in making the university and visa applications, also university representatives spend hundreds of hours to assist the students throughout this journey,” he noted.

UKVI is also reportedly rescheduling visa interviews without sufficient warning and some have found personnel have not showed up to arrange meetings with authorities in Pakistan, Shah detailed.

“In such instances where the student is waiting for the interview with the official and they didn’t show up, they have been called for a second interview. That gives them a second chance, but a week or so and you already know that the students are at the verge of missing the intake.”

Others have had appointments rescheduled to March, Khan noted. In Pakistan, there is a perception that UKVI is intentionally delaying visas as the UK government continues to attempt to bring down migration numbers, he suggested.

In some cases, the interviewers have just asked two or three questions and then not told them the interview is finished when they leave the room, Shah said.

“The students are still there, they don’t know what to do. Do they have to wait for the interviewer to join again, or are they done with the interview?”

“A lot of funny things have happened this time around,” Khan told The PIE.

Pakistan is one of the six important regional markets the International Education Champion Sir Steve Smith, outlined in the updated 2021 UK international education strategy.

Syed Nooh, head of global insights and market development at the University of East Anglia, noted that universities have already had to revise their January 2024 intake targets “due to a fall in demand from international students”.

“Then, on top of that, students have faced severe delays with visa interviews in-county, meaning that many won’t make it in time for the start of term. This means an even smaller number of students joining our universities for the January intake,” he told The PIE.

Enroly’s autumn data showed a 4% drop in CAS issuances across a sample of 43 institutions, with Nigeria’s drop at 21% and India dropped by 1.5%.

The latest data from the company has shown that CAS issuance for Pakistan is up 14% year-on-year, Khan emphasised.

The whole picture doesn’t “help universities financially”, Nooh continued.

“It comes on top of the negativity around the dependant visa restrictions and rumours about the future of the Graduate Route. This certainly isn’t helping the UKHE sector.

“We are all eager for the UKVI to provide the good and prompt service that international students deserve. I hope that they understand how critical this is for the sector and improve things for next September 2024 intake.”

The issue is a continuing one after a similarly difficult September intake for Pakistani students, where they were also facing delays leading to dropouts and deferrals.

“Unfortunately, there is no forum to escalate this issue with UKVI… they have taken that service away as well,” Khan added.

“The sector is already going into deep waters… [but this makes it appear] to be heading towards more of a sinking ship.”

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