Fix 'woeful' overseas student visa service, say universities
International students are "paying through the nose for a woefully inadequate document-checking service" for UK study visas, say universities.
Some students are waiting 30 days for checks on the documents and biometric information they need, according to Universities UK.
The problems started when outsourcing company Sopra Steria took over the service in November, says UUK.
Sopra Steria has rejected suggestions its charges are excessive.
UUK, which represents all 136 UK universities, says it is concerned that if Sopra Steria is struggling now, it will be completely overwhelmed by the more than 40,000 overseas students arriving ahead of the autumn term.
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Until last November, students were able to arrange document checks through their local post offices.
Now, universities say applicants too often face:
- waits of at least two weeks, sometimes longer, for appointments
- difficulties accessing and processing information online
- a support line charging £2.50 a minute
- paying up to £200, on top of the cost of the visa, for a premium service, still not getting appointments but being refused refunds
- long journeys to Sopra Steria centres for fast-track appointments
Elisa Calcagni, who is studying for a doctorate at Cambridge and comes from Chile, said she struggled for weeks to get an appointment and eventually decided to pay for a "fast-track" appointment in Croydon, two hours away.
"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 says.
In addition, the website is not geared up for use by students with visual impairments, says UUK.
Southampton student Khalid Elkhereiji found the website would not allow him to log on as it was incompatible with his screen reader.
"This is not a problem I face with other websites."
When he finally logged on with the help of a sighted person, he found no appointments available in Southampton and the university had to intervene.
Complaints have resulted in Sopra Steria offering pop-up services on some campuses but these 15-minute appointments cost £50, payable by the student or university.
This does not account for the space and extra staff that universities will need to provide to allow these appointments to go ahead, says UUK.
Earlier this month, Cardiff University said the pop-up service there would cost them £200,000, though Sopra Steria says the real amount is far lower.
UUK chief executive Alistair Jarvis urged the company to mend its "broken system" before the September surge.
"International students make a huge cultural and economic contribution to the UK. 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," said Mr Jarvis.
Sopra Steria said it is working closely with the Home Office, universities and higher education institutions across the UK to "increase capacity where needed".
The Home Office said six new locations were opened in May and June across the UK to ensure extra document checking appointments were available.