A report from The Observer said that appointments for UK students visas – a system which is outsourced to VFS Global – were being booked up by “dodgy” agents and subsequently sold at extortionate price, despite the fact they are supposed to be free.
Claims were made by prospective students that some people were standing outside VFS offices in Pakistan, asking, “you need appointment?”
The issue reportedly stems throughout South Asia, including Bangladesh, Nepal and India as well as Pakistan.
Earlier this year, the PIE has reported on similar problems affecting US visa appointments.
Syed Nooh, head of global insights and market development at UEA, said the problem seems to be bigger in Pakistan than it is in other countries.
“A number of in-country staff who represent a lot of UK universities and some of the leading agencies are frustrated, because if a student does not get their appointment in time, that means their visa application doesn’t get assessed in time and then arrivals are delayed.
“This year a lot of UK universities, including a lot of the Russell Group universities, have had to extend late arrivals for a student because there was a massive backlog of visa applications,” Nooh told The PIE.
VFS, whose representatives said they were unable to comment when requested by The PIE, previously said in a statement that it is working to combat the problem, especially in Pakistan where numbers have been higher.
“We take all attempts to misuse the visa application appointment system exceptionally seriously.
“We have not experienced this type or scale of abuse in any other UKVI locations and have been working closely with the UK Home Office to combat this abuse,” the spokesperson said.
However, there is a question on why VFS Global is the only company involved in appointment booking. An agent from a large agency in Pakistan, who spoke with The PIE on the condition they not be named, said that was just the tip of the iceberg.
“[Students] should have multiple options for submissions of visa applications – VFS are the only ones who are giving these appointments,” they said.
Nooh also suggested that UKVI should consider more companies to help carry the load, especially in Pakistan.
“As an example, in Pakistan, in the last few years there was only one organisation, who could conduct tuberculosis tests.
“There were a lot of problems and a bottleneck as children had a lot of real issues getting appointments – they had multiple centres but only one company was allowed to do it.
“What the government has done now is bring in multiple organisations, and that problem is sorted – that’s the lesson,” Nooh explained.
The Home Office said in an initial statement to The Observer that it was taking action to tackle abuse of the appointment booking process by “unauthorised agents”, and is continuing to work with VFS to “introduce measures to stop this fraudulent behaviour”.
In the meantime, the agent said, VFS needs more boots on the ground – at least in Pakistan, where the problem is rife.
“They should be extending their working hours [in busier periods]”
“They need more staff. They should be extending their working hours [in busier periods] or doing morning and evening shifts,” they suggested, as well as noting no offices were available for students in the South Punjab province.
The UK is, and will continue to be very popular for Pakistan, in a way that Australia and Canada are not, the agent suggested, which risks the problem continuing if not enough is done to stop it.
“[Students] should have multiple options for submissions of visa applications”
Speaking on the so-called agents standing outside the VFS offices offering such appointments, the agent said VFS itself should be monitoring who is outside the building. “Why, if you don’t have an appointment, are you standing outside the premises, or nearby to the premises?” they said.
Asked whether the government should take back over the handling of visa appointments, Nooh said that UKVI’s focus should be on turning around the decisions “as quickly as possible”.
But when it comes to the outlook of this issue on the market, while many students choose the UK because a relative graduated from there, or family members live there, the market is much more flexible than people realise and it could have a knock-on effect, Nooh predicted.
“A lot of people are not bound by geographic locations… If they’re hearing through the rumour mill that getting a visa appointment for the UK is very difficult, or getting the visa itself is a lengthy process, they may well say, ‘you know what, we’re going to have to look elsewhere’.”