Visa regulations between countries vary widely across language travel destinations and are often a source of frustration for schools and agents when potential students are denied access to courses for seemingly impenetrable reasons. In some cases, lobbying by school associations, as well as increased government appreciation of the economic value of a thriving language travel industry, have been having an effect, which has led to a number of key destinations introducing welcome changes in recent years.
In Australia, Sue Blundell of English Australia (EA) is upbeat. “All the feedback we receive is that the Australian visa regime is now the most transparent and objective that agents and students have to deal with,” she says. Accessibility of information has been enhanced through the launch of a dedicated agent section on the Department of Immigration (DIAC) website (see box page 32). Moreover, visa approval rates are high, increasing to 93 per cent for offshore visa approvals in 2005/06. Major changes in the visa system now being rolled out, following extensive consultation between EA and DIAC, should only reinforce Australia’s attractiveness as a language study destination. These include extending the maximum study period on a working holiday visa from three to four months, as well as a new visa category for skilled graduate immigrants.
Although happy with achievements to date, EA continues to press for improvements. The matter of the restrictive English language requirements for students from designated “high risk” countries is still under discussion with the DIAC, reports Blundell. However, she adds, with the number of countries in these categories now being relatively small, this is not the issue that it once was.
Some years ago, Australia pioneered the linking of accreditation status to the ability of language schools to recruit students requiring a visa. Now it seems that this could eventually become the norm. Language school association, MEI-Relsa, is keen for Ireland to adopt the idea. “Urgent representations have been made to the [Irish] visa authorities on this issue,” says Director Adrian Cummins, “and MEI-Relsa is hopeful that some positive changes in visa issuance may occur in the future.” In the meantime, like Blundell, Cummins is encouraged by the current situation with visa issuance. “In general, our members believe that the number of visa problems has somewhat decreased in recent months.” He adds, “We feel [this] may be due to the ongoing dialogue between the visa authorities and our members, and an increasing confidence among visa officials in the product MEI schools are offering and the rigour with which they monitor attendance.”
The UK visa system is in the process of major revision (see Language Travel Magazine, October 2006, page 6), and one aspect of this is that UK language schools will in future have to become accredited in order to accept students who require a visa. The exact criteria to be adopted by the UK will be announced shortly. In the meantime, the move has been well received in principle. Linked to this will be a new system of student “sponsorship” by educational institutions, whereby it will be the responsibility of schools to monitor attendance. According to Diana Lowe of the Association of British Language Schools (ABLS), the full implications of becoming a sponsor are still not completely clear. However, she reports that there is “some negative feeling amongst some members about the government using schools as [replacement] passport officers.”
A points-based system for all UK migrants, along the lines of that already used in Australia, is also being rolled out. Tier four of the system, which applies to students, will be implemented at the beginning of 2009, and should introduce greater transparency to the visa system. This will be widely welcomed. UK language school group, St Giles International, points to a current lack of consistency in the handling of visa applications from certain source countries.
According to Sales & Marketing Co-ordinator, Hannah Cox, agents in China are reporting visa refusals, both on the grounds of their English being too good and not being good enough. Further feedback suggests that there has been an increase this year in the number of visa refusals for Russians and Koreans, while another negative factor is the cost of the UK visa. The cost of the UK visa in Taiwan has increased considerably this year, according to Cox, with the effect that students are pushed instead towards Australia and Canada. However, for many students the UK remains more attractive than another major rival, the USA. “I know from talking to Taiwanese agents,” Cox explains, “that people are still put off the US visa process.”
Pushing for change
As highlighted by Cox, the USA has something of a reputation among agents for its strict visa regulations, and Jeff Hutcheson of US schools’ association AAIEP believes that there remains “much room for improvement in the visa process” in his country. He reports that AAIEP has joined with the Alliance for International Educational and Cultural Exchanges to petition the US government to make the USA “more welcoming”, especially in the visa issuance process.
Since the passing of the 2004 Intelligence Reform Act, US embassies are required to conduct a personal interview with virtually every visa applicant. This, Hutcheson notes, constitutes a particularly serious barrier in large countries such as China, India, Russia and Brazil, where many applicants must travel long distances at their own expense to appear for an interview. Other problems identified by AAIEP include insufficient resources and the repetitive processing of frequent visitors. However, no resolution is currently in sight.
When a country reforms its visa system to make it more favourable to students, it is inevitable given the competition among English-speaking destinations that a negative impact will be felt elsewhere. Guy Hughes, Director of Language Schools New Zealand in Christchurch, New Zealand, comments that the recent Immigration Act review left the country’s language schools “significantly disadvantaged compared to Australian and other competitor countries regarding work rights”.
Angela Oliver, Chairperson of English New Zealand, adds, “[The New Zealand] Government is very afraid of allowing English language school student visa holders to work in New Zealand, on the basis that they believe many would prioritise work over study. “Of course,” she adds, “other countries have different views on this topic and we have not given up hope [that] our own government will consult with their offshore colleagues and gain a wider perspective based on statistical probabilities, rather than individual opinion.”
The working holiday visa is another area where Oliver feels that current New Zealand regulations are working against the best interests of the language travel sector. Although the number of countries with which it has working holiday agreements has been extended to include new EU member countries and an increased number of South American countries, the maximum allowed period of study is still limited to three months, whereas, as noted above, Australia now allows four months. On the positive side, however, Saudi Arabia has been added to the New Zealand visa-free entry category. “A pleasing sign of enlightenment,” comments Oliver.
As in New Zealand, students in Canadian private language schools are currently disadvantaged in terms of work rights, and Canadian language school association, Capls, has also been lobbying for changes. According to spokesperson, Linda Auzins, there are other areas that the association would like to see improved. “We are in the process of identifying a list of source countries where visa processing has been challenging. We would [also] like to establish stronger communication links with the visa offices, in an effort to better inform them of the association’s activities in regard to quality assurance, etc,” she reports.
In the meantime, language schools are reporting localised difficulties, mainly on account of a perceived lack of consistency. Farouk Suleman of Canadian language school, Village English in Mississauga, ONT, highlights a growing number of refusals for students from Colombia. He comments, “I have seen examples of the standard refusal letters they have received, and it baffles me, as the refusals are not consistent.” Similarly, Kristina Stewart, Manager of Stewart College of Languages in Victoria, BC, singles out problems experienced by students from countries, such as Libya, in obtaining Canadian study permits.
Visa winners and losers
In South Africa, neither CT School of English nor Eurocentres in Cape Town has any major concerns about the current visa situation in their country. Howard Johnson, Centre Manager at Eurocentres, notes, “The situation has been very stable over the past 18 months.” According to CT’s Manya Bredell, “There are constant changes in the visa processes, but it has not negatively affected study visa applications.” The one issue that she would, however, like to see addressed is as in several other countries the question of uniformity when making decisions. “Each embassy seems to have different regulations [that] they work with,” she comments.
Malta is widely regarded as fostering a favourable visa climate for international students, and this is undoubtedly good for business. The attraction of Malta has been enhanced recently, with the government confirming new procedures for a special visa for “bona fide” students following a language course in Malta. This visa can be issued for up to one year’s duration, and students will only have to appear at the Immigration Office at regular intervals, notes John Dimech of national language school association, Feltom. Another beneficial development is that students in 26 countries where Malta has no embassy or consular office may now apply for their visa via the Austrian Consular Office.
Doors were reopened to Chinese students in July last year, after visas to China had been suspended in 2005, following a tragic incident. “The intention was to facilitate the procedures to apply for an entry visa, as well as to take the necessary procedures to ensure that the system is not abused,” explains Dimech. However, he adds that business has been slow in returning to Maltese language schools. Business is also being lost because of Malta’s cautious attitude towards countries such as Nigeria, Pakistan, Mongolia and Colombia. “[These] are still considered high-risk countries for Malta, when other countries have a different view,” Dimech explains.
Such problems are minor compared with the situation in Italy, where Matteo Savini of Italian language school association, Asils, reports that entry to the country is still very difficult for many nationalities. “It is very hard for South and Central American countries, almost impossible for Russians, Chinese and Indians. Even from the US we have had problems in the past,” he asserts. The problem here is that, despite consistent lobbying from Asils, study of the Italian language is not among the officially permitted reasons for the granting of a visa. “We expect that the Foreign Affairs Ministry, [in accordance] with the suggestion received last March from the Tourism Ministry, will consider a more attentive attitude regarding student visas for Italian language courses,” he comments, “but up to now, we’re still facing the same old problems as ever.”
Effects on the industry
As noted above, the relative ease or difficulty in obtaining a visa in the various English language destinations can be a major factor in the amount of business that comes the way of their language schools. Suleman comments, “As word gets around, students do not even bother applying to Canadian schools, as is the case now in Colombia.” By contrast, Johnson comments, “South Africa has seen significant growth in certain markets, like Brazil and Korea, because of the stable visa conditions that are prevailing. It is also easier…to get a visa for South Africa than [for] many other countries at present.”
All of this begs the question, are national governments, in their efforts to safeguard national security, doing enough to protect the interests of their language teaching industries? The most positive response comes from English Australia. “I believe that the Australian government has achieved a good balance in this area,” comments Blundell. “Visa programmes are sufficiently rigorous without impacting on the industry’s ability to grow in a sustainable way.” The evidence is that persistent lobbying is slowly but surely making an impact in a number of other countries, including Canada, the UK and Ireland. Meanwhile, in Italy, “The fear of illegal immigration seems to dominate the approach that [the] Italian authorities have with student visas,” according to Savini. Asils, for one, still has a major battle on its hands.
One of the key elements of handling visa applications is keeping up to date with changing requirements. While the visa authorities in some destinations are helpful in providing readily accessible information, others are less so, and thus create more work for agents and schools.
One authority that has taken an enlightened approach is the Australian Department of Immigration (DIAC), which has developed a new Agents Gateway section on its website (www.immi.gov.au/gateways/agents/index.htm). This, reports English Australia’s Sue Blundell, is “very good”. Agents can also sign up for its Student Visa Program Update Service (www.immi.gov.au/business-services/education-providers/update_service.htm), and receive emails notifying them of any changes to the student visa programme.
Of varying quality, visa authorities’ websites are the most common means used by agents for keeping abreast of changes. German agency, CollegeCouncil, also consults consular newsletters and sometimes meets with consulates, according to Managing Director, Kurt Gamerschlag. International Education Centre in Russia also has some liaison with the different embassies. “Our manager responsible for [the] preparation of visa documents regularly visits embassies to get the latest information about their demands,” comments Director, Tatiana Grigorieva, who adds that the British Embassy sometimes organises briefings to inform agents about new rules.
In some countries, however, agents are not so fortunate. “There are no embassies in Bulgaria who liaise with language travel agents in terms of visa issues,” states Nikola Georgiev, Managing Director of Bulgarian agency, Association NIKI-M STA. “It is the company’s responsibility to learn the new requirements, in order to keep up to date with current visa matters.” However, as Russian agent, Natalia Krivda of Masterclass Educational Agency, points out, UK visa officers are usually present at Icef conferences, providing the only opportunity to meet with officials.
Language schools, for their part, generally leave visa matters to their agent partners. “I believe that consulates are more confident in some serious local agent, than in a school which is so far from them,” ventures Christian Rouet, Director of French language school, Institut International de Rambouillet. Meanwhile, Matteo Savini of Italian language school association, Asils, comments, “[Neither] single schools nor Asils are able to deal with consulates. Most of the time, they do not reply to faxes and emails or calls.”
However, some level of contact can sometimes prove beneficial. At Eurocentres in Cape Town, South Africa, for example, Centre Manager, Howard Johnson, explains, “ We assist by contacting certain consulates, informing them of new agents going to represent us, or of students going to apply for visas.” Canadian school, Village English in Mississauga, ONT, also makes direct contact with consulates. However, according to spokesman, Farouk Suleman, “We hardly ever get any responses from them.” He adds, “I personally have taken the route of seeing my local MP to assist us in some cases. This has had little impact.” For Manya Bredell, of CT School of English in Cape Town, South Africa, the effort has sometimes proved worthwhile, however. “Applications in Angola and Brazzaville have worked out well because of our direct intervention,” she remarks.
However, it remains the case that visa applications can be both tricky and time-consuming, and many in the industry would welcome greater interaction with the issuing authorities. As Milagros Gonzalez de Nemer of Mexican agency, Ad Astra International, sums up, “I think [that] training and updates in the visa issues [are] really important.”
Western European students are largely unaffected by visa problems. German agency, CollegeCouncil, for example, has a refusal rate of less than five per thousand applicants, according to Managing Director, Kurt Gamerschlag. However, those from certain South American, African and Eastern European countries, by contrast, continue to encounter high rates of visa refusal.
From Bulgaria, Nikola Georgiev, Managing Director of Association NIKI-M STA, asserts that Australia is almost impossible for his company to work with. Applications are generally rejected on the grounds that the applicant does not intend to return home. The situation is so bad, he reports, that, “they are even refusing visas to company staff to attend business trips, workshops or educational events”. This, despite the fact that in most cases the applicants are able to obtain visas for other destinations, including the USA, Canada, and New Zealand. For students wanting to attend English courses in Canada, his success rate is also low, at around 30 per cent. Meanwhile, for the USA, the situation has improved, he notes. While J-1 visa applications (for internships) have a 90 per cent success rate for clients, only around 42 per cent of applications for student visas are similarly successful.
At Swiss agency, Pro Linguis, where, reports spokesperson, Andrea Gerber, visa problems occur very rarely, the destination most likely to throw up a refusal is the USA. The USA is also regarded as extremely difficult by Russian agency, International Education Centre, where Tatiana Grigorieva, says that the company has stopped sending students there because of past refusals.
Taking into account not just refusal rates, but also the general ease of processing, the situation overall is not improving, according to Grigorieva. On the contrary, she says, many embassies now request applicants to be present in person when submitting a student visa application, which requires much time and expense. The fact that the German embassy requires all supporting documents to be translated into German is also an obstacle for her clients.
Among agents canvassed for this article, there is only one positive response to the question whether the visa situation has improved over the past twelve months. This comes from Natalia Krivda from Russia, who observes that the UK’s visa policy has changed for the better with the opening of various visa application centres. However, this improvement is destined not to last. “They consider these [centres] to be not profitable, and will close them by the end of next year. Besides,” she adds, “the biometrics will make the situation even worse, as not many people wish to go to Moscow or take their five-year-olds there for finger printing.”