||When deciding where to study on a language or education trip overseas, most students mention the location, size and price of a school, as well as the ease and expense of travelling to a particular country. However, for many nationalities there is an even more important factor to take into account: visas.
The visa system in various countries worldwide differs widely, with some popular destinations, such as Australia, working to increase the transparency of their visa issuing process, while others, such as the USA and the UK, still largely relying on the personal judgements of individual visa issuing officers. Laura Pluzhnikova from Abitour Educational Group in Russia says that for some students, particularly those wanting to study on long-term programmes, visas are the "main concern" when choosing where to study. She adds, "The most difficult countries are the UK, Spain, Italy and Ireland as of late. The easiest destinations are Malta, Switzerland and Austria."
For students, schools and agents alike, the most frustrating outcome of a visa application is an outright refusal. Visas can be refused after painstaking preparation on the part of the student and, despite submitting all the correct information, often with no explanation given. In many study destinations, visa refusals are usually confined to certain nationalities and an increase in refusal rates can accompany a specific security concern regarding that country. James Ward from the Auckland Institute of Studies in Auckland, New Zealand, says that student visas are rarely issued for "at risk countries, [which include] Pakistan and most African countries". He adds, "Recently, Cambodians have had problems with getting student visas and renewing their current student visas. The Cambodian problem has been one where, due to a rash of false documents, there are security concerns over Cambodians."
In some cases, a spate of visa denials for a particular nationality may be a temporary situation but for other nationalities, regular visa denials are more commonplace. Chinese students in particular seem to find it hard to get a student visa, with governments in many destinations imposing such strict requirements that an application is rarely successful. Ann Hawkings from Shane Global Language Centres in the UK says, "Chinese enrolments have stopped altogether as a result of the visa situation [in the UK]," while Alessandro Vidoni from Linguaviva Group in Italy reports that new rules regarding Chinese student visa applicants introduced last year made it "quite impossible for a Chinese [student] to come to our country to study our language".
In Malta too, Louiseanne Mercieca from English Language Academy relates that visas were not being issued to Chinese students for a time due to "problems with a number of Chinese people who were applying for visas as students and then leaving the island". However, she adds, "Now the problem seems to have been resolved."
Usually, the issuance of a student visa rests on the immigration officer being convinced that a student has a genuine reason for entering the country and will return to their country of origin upon finishing their course. According to Dunja Burger at Carl Duisberg Centren in Germany, the type of course being applied for can make a difference in whether a visa is issued or not. "For a number of countries, no visas are issued just to attend a language course," she says. "However, if the applicant presents the acceptance from a German university, it is very likely that, provided all personal matters bank account, insurance, etc are cleared, this student will get a visa."
In France too, Marc Melin from the Centre International d';Etudes Francaises (CIDEF) at the Université Catholique d L';Ouest in France says that a student';s future study plans can have an influence on whether or not a visa is used for a language course. "The official common reason [for a visa refusal] is that the embassy doesn';t believe in the students'; programme of studies in France after learning French in CIDEF," he says.
One destination where there appears to have been a positive change in the visa application process is the USA. In recent years, the USA has been notorious for its tough stance on enforcing visa policy as well as long delays in the application process since the introduction of interviews for all applicants. However, intervention by Condoleeza Rice, the US Secretary of State, in the form of a circular sent to all embassies and consulates worldwide in September last year, looks like it is having a positive influence on the situation. The circular urged a more lenient interpretation of a student';s need to establish clear ties with their home country and states, "The typical student is young, without employment, without family dependents and without substantial personal assets…. they don';t necessarily have a long range plan, and hence are relatively less likely [than other non-immigrant visa applicants] to have formed an intent to abandon their homes."
The circular also addressed the practice of consular officers denying visas because of the availability of such training in the applicants'; own countries, adding, "The student has the right to choose where she/he will obtain an education if accepted by the school." Marsha Sprague at the Maryland English Institute at the University of Maryland in the USA says that the change in interpretation should "make it easier for applicants to be given student visas" and adds that consulates have also been made aware that going to study English in the USA is a valid reason to be given a student visa. "The few times consulates have questioned this, I and other English programme directors have emailed or faxed them to remind them," she adds. "I myself have found consulates to be very responsive, I would say more so in the past year than previously."
A change in the attitude of visa issuing officers is a welcome turning point for many in the USA. David Quinn from the American Language Program at Columbia University blames the long delays experienced when applying for visas since 2001 on an inefficient system for interviewing all visa applicants. "Now more resources have been provided and students can book their appointments online and pay online so there are now shorter waiting times and students don';t have to queue around the block for appointments," he says. "The US government is finally listening."
Positive changes to immigration policy are often the result of a lot of hard work by industry associations, many of whom routinely lobby and provide advisory papers to government bodies on behalf of their members. The effect of such activities can be extremely beneficial to the industry as a whole. Stuart Boag from Education New Zealand says that the association was recently asked to manage industry consultation regarding a comprehensive review of student immigration policy in New Zealand, resulting in significant changes. "Key changes to student visa policy included enhanced work rights for students and a far clearer and closer linkage between study and further work and residency in New Zealand," he says.
In Australia too, input from industry spokespeople has been key in advising on and recommending changes to the visa application process. "English Australia meets regularly with the Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs (Dimia) along with peak bodies from other education sectors," says Sue Blundell. "We are consulted about any proposed changes and also provide input into policy development not just for student visas but for all [relevant] visas."
Tony Millns from English UK is unequivocal in his belief in the influence school associations can have on government policies. "We are members of the Joint Education Taskforce and its sub-groups and are fully involved in the details of the current proposals for major change to the entry clearance system [in the UK]," he says. "There is no doubt that our ability to represent nearly 350 member centres is having a real impact on the government';s proposals."
Industry associations also provide an important forum for schools to voice their opinions regarding less positive visa changes. For example in South Africa, first-time applicants of study visas, as well as those applying for visa extensions or changes while in South Africa, are now required to have a full medical, chest x-ray and produce police clearance certificates from their country of residence. "Several agents have expressed their unhappiness with these new requirements," says Meryl van der Merwe from Inlingua in South Africa. "Eltasa [the English Language Teaching Association of South Africa] has been active in lobbying Home Affairs [regarding this issue]. We would like them to consider exempting our clients from these new requirements."
No matter how hard industry bodies work to improve visa application and issuance procedures for genuine students, it seems likely that visas will continue to be an issue for some years to come. However, for any country intent on developing its international education industry, balancing the needs of incoming students with protecting its own borders needs to be a goal to work towards.
"It is important to note that nothing in relation to visas is static," says Martijn Dijksterhuis from Study DIY in Taiwan. "There is hardly a month without some change being made somewhere. We observe and adjust."
The visa issuing process in every country is a continuously evolving process, with changes to fees and conditions such as work rights changing. The most up-to-date information can, therefore, often be difficult to find. When applying for a student visa, using the services of an agent to ensure that the correct application procedure is followed can mean the difference between a visa being issued or denied.
Agents are also useful for schools in the way that they screen potential clients to ensure that they are genuine in their intentions and therefore more likely to be issued a visa. "We have developed a strict recruiting programme and only those who are able to fit the requirements are enrolled for our international education programmes," says Rui Cezar Morais Souza from Bridge International Education in Brazil. "For 20 years we are sending students all over the world and we have never had a visa refusal case to report."
Elad Sasson from Campus Studies in Israel says that they also refuse to deal with clients who they suspect do not have genuine intentions to study overseas, although they still have problems with applications for certain destinations. "Most students don';t even try to apply [to the USA] because they know it is impossible to get a visa for non-academic studies if someone wants to learn English in the states," he says. "';Easy'; destinations are those that do not require an entrance visa for a short stay, for example, countries in Western Europe."
Some agencies ensure their clients have the best possible chance of getting a visa by providing a personalised application service. "We do all the visa application process on behalf of our students," says Oscar Cerón from Canada Connection in Mexico. "We fill out the application and organise the file that will be presented to the [visa issuing] agency. It seems more work but we prefer to do it that way and avoid future problems [of a visa being denied]. Since we started the agency until now we have never got a visa denial [for our clients]."