December 2003 issue

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Visa crunch in the USA

International student enrolment on language courses and degree programmes in the USA is suffering, as schools feel the effects of a tightening up of the immigration system. Since August 1, the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (Sevis) has been in effect - requiring all students to be entered into a computer-based tracking system - and all visa candidates have had to attend an in-person interview at their local consulate or embassy.
Perceived difficulties and the added expense of getting a visa are putting off students from choosing the USA, say agents and schools. Peter Adams, a consultant based in Germany, told Language Travel Magazine, 'The stories I heard from my clients' parents about standing in line in the hot sun for hours at a time were unbelievable.' He said many of his clients were turning to Canada, the UK, Ireland and New Zealand instead.

Kelly Franklin, President of the American Association of Intensive English Programs (AAIEP), acknowledged that the extra expense involved in travelling to an embassy or consulate to attend a visa interview had impacted on the market. He added that the Sevis system will also soon require a fee from students to fund its operation. The cost is yet to be decided, but estimates are in the region of US$100.

The waiting time to find out if a visa has been awarded - reports indicate a wait of two months is common - is also a stumbling block to enrolments.

However, in Uzbekistan, agent Olga Grjendko of Business Education Exchange, said that most of her clients were used to attending a visa interview in person anyway. 'This was usual for central Asian regions,' she said, although she acknowledged that a high rate of visa refusal from the US Embassy in Tashkent meant that, in many cases, her clients chose other study destinations.

Statistics from the State Department testify that there were 57,000 fewer student visa applications from October 1, 2002 to August 1, 2003, compared with the same period two years earlier, and 65,000 fewer visas actually issued. A total of 270,405 applications were received and almost 175,000 student visas were issued in this period, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education. At the English Language Center at the University of Denver in the USA, Jill Pommrehn, Operations Manager, reported that student numbers had declined, although she said it was too soon to tell if new visa requirements were the reason for this. 'English language programme enrolment in general has declined since the fall of the Asian market several years ago,' she said. 'However, we had 66 students in the spring and only 53 [in September].'

She explained that of the 14 students expected to enrol who did not arrive, three were waiting to hear about their visas. 'They have been waiting more than 60 days,' she said. 'All three are from the Middle East.' This may also be due to added security checks undertaken by the USA on nationals of certain countries.

Nafsa, Association of International Educators, issued a set of recommendations earlier in the year that aimed to balance immigration security with practicality, given concerns over visa delays. It suggested a 30-day standard waiting time, with a hotline to help resolve cases that require more than 30 days to process. It also recommended abolishing the visa interview rule.

Academic groups have also signed a petition - Academic Visa Reform - organised by graduate international students at Yale University, who are campaigning to establish longer term re-entry and multiple entry visas into the USA as well as a supportive environment for overseas academics keen to work in the country.

Students on the up in Australia

The number of student visa holders in Australia increased by 12 per cent in the year ending July 2003, according to Australia's Minister for Immigration, Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs, Philip Ruddock. He claimed the student number increase was testament to the success of Australia's transparent visa system, introduced in July 2001, and he promised further changes to improve the visa issuing process.

Key student markets for Australia across all sectors were noted as China, the USA, Malaysia, Korea, Hong Kong and Japan. Total student visa grants numbered 106,610 in the year. 'The student visa reforms of 1 July 2001 have allowed for continued strong growth in the number of bona fide students coming to Australia, while at the same time, sustaining quality and integrity of Australia's education export industry,' commented Ruddock.

Sue Blundell at English Australia (EA) welcomed the findings, but said EA figures indicated declines in the English language sector from Latin America and Europe, 'which we believe are directly associated with the student visa programme'.

Further changes to the visa system, expected this year, will include a relaxing of rules regarding financial requirements for students from high-class visa categories. Ruddock explained, 'The range of acceptable financial criteria will be extended. The financial requirements will also be made more consistent across education sectors, increasing the transparency of the visa process.'

Amendments to the English language proficiency requirements are also expected.

English to be key in UK citizenship

A working group charged with researching best practice for integrating migrants in the UK has recommended English language tests as part of a range of measures. UK Home Secretary, David Blunkett, commented, 'I welcome the emphasis on English - acquiring English is a pre-requisite to social integration, to further education and employment and to the well-being of succeeding generations.'

The group's findings back up the view of the government, which announced last year its plans to overhaul citizenship requirements (see Language Travel Magazine, April 2002, page 4). Recommendations, likely to be enacted next year, include free English language lessons and a requirement for prospective citizens to prove progression from one Esol (English for Speakers of Other Languages) level to another. Applicants must have lived in the country for five years, or three years, if they are married to a British citizen.

Germany emphasises its cool

An advertising campaign in Europe to promote Germany's cultural and youthful appeal is being planned, following market research in the UK by the Goethe Institut that revealed Germany suffers from a dull stereotype, particularly in the UK.

The advertising campaign will feature German celebrities such as Claudia Schiffer, Boris Becker and Michael Schumacher, as well as images of Berlin's famous techno-music event, the Love Parade. The campaign will run under the slogan 'Made in Germany'. Similar campaigns targeted at young people in Eastern Europe are being planned for next year.

'We decided to emphasise current aspects of German life that are ignored - the hedonism for example,' said Ulrich Sacker, a spokesperson at the Goethe Institut, which has branches throughout Europe. He pointed out that currently, 'We have the short working days and take the longest holidays in Europe.'

Student access to health care in NZ denied

A change in law in New Zealand means that foreign students previously entitled to free and subsidised health care are no longer eligible. The changes came into effect on October 30, with requirements dictating that all students enrolling from January 1 must also have adequate medical and travel insurance.

Previously, foreign students had been able to receive subsidised health care and free hospital care if they had a study permit for 12 months or more and expected to be in the country for at least two years. Colin Feek, of the Health Ministry, estimated that 20,000 foreign fee-paying students were eligible last year. 'I don't consider the government has an obligation to provide this group... public-funded health services, as they generally don't intend to remain here [permanently],' he said.

The new ruling is expected to save the New Zealand taxpayer millions and is backed by Education New Zealand Chief Executive, Robert Stevens.

Australia speeds up visa queue for Chinese

Visa processing time in China for Australian student visas is improving, with the average length of wait since February less than 12 weeks, or 16 weeks for the high school sector, the Affiliation of International Education Peak Bodies (AIEPB) reported earlier this year. Previous waiting time was around 20 weeks.

Representatives of the AIEPB meet regularly with government officials to discuss issues relating to the country's education export industry. The group also reported that the Immigration Department - which introduced new processes to cut down visa waiting time - aims to introduce email-based visa applications as a standard procedure next year.

Canadian community starts up education association

A group of Canadian companies providing services to the international student sector has set up an association dedicated to coordinating their products and working with the local community. The Comox Valley International Educators Association (CVIEA) officially launched in September. Kassandra Dycke, Academic Director of Comox Valley International College (CVIC) - one of the five current members of CVIEA - explained that the members, who had worked together informally for years, realised that "clients are more easily attracted to our services when we are able to offer packages combining [our products]."

Other members of CVIEA are School District No. 71, North Island College, Tribune Bay Outdoor Education and Accacia Homestay Services. Dycke explained, "[Previously], there was always a competitive aspect to [our] relationships. We began searching for ways to overcome barriers and build a cooperative relationship that would not only benefit the clients and our own businesses, but the community as well."

The association is running a series of media releases in local newspapers and magazines as well as industry publications. CVIEA hopes that its efforts will foster a sense of goodwill among the local community towards international visitors. "If we as educators work together, the community feels a greater sense of trust and reassurance that [it] is not going to be overwhelmed by... international visitors as a result of irresponsible competitive marketing," said Dycke.

The continued learning that CVIEA offers includes high school preparation programmes at CVIC followed by high school placement into School District no 71, for example. "CVIEA will offer students a multi-phase education package that may include private English language instruction, as well as high school, post-secondary or recreational pursuits," explained Dycke. "In doing so, we have recognised that it is essential to build a responsible relationship with the community at large."

Other schools will be invited to join CVIEA, which represents a region on the east coast of Vancouver Island in British Columbia.

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