January 2004 issue

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The visa process

As countries battle to keep illegal immigrants and terrorists out, visa regulations are being tightened up. As a result, language travellers are faced with a growing number of visa obstacles to surpass before being able to commence their language courses overseas. Gillian Evans reports.

There is a certain ambivalence in the world today. On the one hand, we all talk about a global economy and society, a world in which people can live, work and study with ease in a different country. On the other hand, particularly in recent years, we have seen ever-increasing obstacles to the movement of people as immigration laws have been tightened to ensure the security of individual nations.

Illegal immigration has always been the primary concern of immigration officials and, over the years, many genuine potential language travellers have found their paths blocked by cautious visa officials. Inna Kostevskaya of SAM Travel Company in the Ukraine says that, in countries with a high standard of living, it is generally difficult to obtain visas for their clients owing to fears of illegal immigration. '[These countries] prefer to over-insure and refuse an applicant who may be a genuine student rather than to grant a visa to a potential immigrant who tries to enter the country as a student,' she says.

One of the ways in which visa officials try to gauge an applicant's commitment to his or her country is through proof of financial security, but this can be almost impossible for students obtain. Le Thi Yen Binh, Managing Director of International Consultancy & Educational Development in Vietnam, says, 'It is hardest to get an entry visa to the USA because the students have to demonstrate their financial status with a [considerable] amount of money. Therefore, only very rich families can send their children to study in the USA. Many parents who have a lot of money in the bank cannot demonstrate where they can earn such a big amount of money in Vietnam.'

In countries such as Venezuela where the economy has taken a tumble, it is even more difficult to prove sufficient funds. Elba Pazos de Marteau, of Proyectos Educatours SA in Venezuela, comments, 'Since February 2003, in Venezuela, there is a [foreign currency] exchange control making it harder for students who do not have bank accounts abroad. Europe has turned into the easiest region to gain visa entry, though many students realise that the cost of living is higher [there] and tend to consider it as their last choice.'

Security measures
Another factor has also become more important to visa officials: preventing the entrance of potential terrorists. Following the September 11 2001 terrorist attacks on the USA - in which it came to light that some of the terrorists had used student status to enter the country - and subsequent terrorist incidents elsewhere, national security has been pushed to the forefront of many governments' agendas.

The USA in particular has erected many more regulatory fences to entry. The Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (Sevis) was introduced in August last year and requires all details of international students to be input into a central computer system maintained by the immigration authorities. From 2002, all prospective students going to the USA also need to obtain a student visa prior to entry and are unable to switch from tourist status to student status, unless intention to study is declared at the port of entry. The USA also introduced the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (Nseers), which requires men over the age of 16 from certain countries to report to the immigration office to be fingerprinted, photographed and questioned. In addition, since November 2003, all visa applicants have had to attend an interview with a visa official - which has caused considerable delays in visa issuance, not to mention inconvenience and added expense to potential language students - and, by 2005, all travellers who need a visa to enter the USA will be fingerprinted on arrival and departure.

Such measures are having a devastating effect on the US English language teaching market. Alan Turner, Principal at St Giles International in the USA, brands the new interview requirement as the 'nail in the coffin' for the English language industry, which already suffered huge setbacks last year through its country's immigration regulations, the Iraqi war and fears about terrorism.

Visa changes
Although the US English language travel market has undoubtedly suffered the most due to the recent amendments to its visa regulations, other destinations have also found their growth curtailed owing to visa issuance changes.

Australia overhauled its visa regulations in 2001, placing countries into categories depending on their perceived risk of illegal immigration, with the higher the category, the stricter the regulations. Although the changes brought more transparency to the system, the most contentious regulation has been the stipulation that students from some countries require an Ielts score prior to applying for their visa. Le Thi Yen Binh in Vietnam says that as a result of this, their Australia bookings decreased by 40 per cent.

In China, the stipulation of an Ielts score requirement for visa applicants spelt disaster for enrolments to Australia during the Sars outbreak. All Ielts test centres were shut for some time last year to contain the disease, which meant that students were unable to apply for their Australian visas. Luke Simon, Principal and Director, International at University of Western Sydney English Language Centre in Australia, says, 'We expect this backlog [of Chinese student applicants] to take months to get back to normal. China was our number-one source country for the last two years but now it has slipped to fourth place.'

In the UK, from November 2003, students from 10 countries (including Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore and South Korea) planning to study for more than six months in the UK have been required to obtain entry clearance - a visa-like residence permit - prior to arrival. Mansuk Bae from KAMC in Korea comments, 'The UK will lose 50 per cent of the market, because of the recent visa change.'

The price of visa extensions in the UK has also increased. '[This] may put students off applying for longer courses initially,' comments Justine Ball, Geos Europe Marketing Coordinator. 'On the other hand, students may think more carefully about the length of time they want to stay and book a longer course to avoid paying for a visa extension in the UK.'

In non-English speaking countries, visa regulations can be equally as difficult, although many of these countries, particularly those in the European Union (EU), rely on students from fellow EU countries who do not require entry visas. Brunella Belluomini of Scuola Toscana in Italy notes that 'the fact that [Italian] schools select countries for [marketing activities] according to immigration law is a sign of the limitation of our industry'.

With the planned expansion of the EU, language schools may experience a broadening of their student markets, as Dorothee Robrecht, Director of PR & Marketing at GLS Sprachenzentrum Berlin in Germany, forecasts. 'We expect improvements [in visa issuance] when some of the Eastern European states join the EU,' she says. 'Then citizens of many of these states won't need a visa for stays of more than 90 days anymore.'

The situation in Spain is similar, says Anna Britton of Clic IH Seville in Spain. 'Students from countries that can stay on a 90-day tourist visa - for example, USA and Brazil - do not have any problems when booking a longer term course.' However, she continues, 'Countries with more problems are Asian countries such as Japan and particularly China. They are often granted a three-month student visa and then have to prolong it here in Spain at local branches of the foreign office, with a letter from the school.'

Italy, meanwhile, has been busy tightening its visa regulations in order to curb the growing number of illegal immigrants in the country. Study visas and permits of stay are now only issued for the duration of the language course for non-EU arrivals, and can only be extended by the student in his or her own country. An additional blow for the language teaching industry is that to obtain a study visa, students must be able to show previous knowledge of the Italian language. In addition, the controversial Bossi-Fini law has made it compulsory for all travellers with permesso di soggiorno for stays of more than 90 days to be fingerprinted on entry to Italy.

In contrast to many other countries, Canada has eased its visa requirements. Since June 2002, students have been able to stay in Canada for up to six months (previously it was only three months) on a temporary resident permit, rather than having to obtain a student permit. However, not all nationalities find it easy to gain access to Canada. 'It has been close to impossible to get [a Canadian visa],' asserts Irina Kovalenko of IEC-NN agency in Russia. 'And this is the only reason the enrolment for this country is so low - the demand is rather high but knowing about the visa situation, people prefer to apply for other countries.'

Another problem applicants to Canada have faced is the length of time it takes to process an entry visa. David Wood of Mount Royal College in Canada, says, 'Canada has always been known for the slowness of its permit approval process.' But this could now change, he continues. 'Citizenship and Immigration Canada and Alberta have signed an agreement that will fast track applications from visa posts in Beijing, New Delhi and Ho Chi Minh City' (see page 5).

But like most other governments, Canada is treading a fine line between open access and ensuring the security of its citizens. Last summer, the authorities announced that 31 people, who had fraudulently obtained student permits and visa extensions to Canada, were being investigated as a possible al-Qaeda sleeper cell. Not only did this catapult Canada's own security concerns into the limelight, but media reports also speculated that there was a real risk of the USA closing its border with Canada to ensure its security.

Tighter visa regulations are evidently a sign of the times we live in, and agents have to work hard to ensure to their best ability that their clients will obtain visa acceptance. Making good contacts with visa issuing officials - if possible - can be beneficial, while schools can help agents by providing an endorsement of their agents to the visa issuing offices. In the end, it is teamwork that will enable the language travel market to continue to grow.

Destination trends

Visa changes certainly have far-reaching effects on the language travel market, influencing not only a student's choice of destination, but also their chosen course and a school's marketing targets. 'Generally for all schools it is a barrier to getting students if it is well known that it is hard to get a visa from a particular country,' asserts Justine Ball, Geos Europe Marketing Coordinator. 'This may dissuade schools from marketing there as efforts could be seen as wasted if the embassy is going to reject a high percentage of students or cause lengthy delays.'

Visa regulations can also almost wipe out students from one particular country, who prefer to try their chances in a country where visa regulations are less stringent. '[The USA's] visa requirements are so strict and the percentage of refusals is so high that students have now completely lost trust that it's possible to get a visa to this country,' reports Inna Kostevskaya of SAM Travel Company in the Ukraine. She estimates that, over the last three years, the number of student applications for the USA has plummeted by 70 per cent.

Even if, in reality, there is no greater number of visa refusals, it is the perception by students and agents of visa difficulties that can have an adverse effect on a destination. 'Students from Japan, for example, complain about having to travel to Tokyo and wait for three hours for a 30-second interview. There are no reports of an increase in [US visa] denials - students are not bothering to apply,' says Alan Turner at St Giles International in the USA.

Elba Pazos de Marteau of Proyectos Educatours SA in Venezuela confirms a similar trend in Venezuela. 'The [risk] of receiving a rejection obviously stamped in passports is considered negative when arriving to another country. In most cases, this makes the students think it over when choosing a country.'

The real benefactors of the USA's tightening visa measures have been Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Marilisa Fiorani de Almeida, at True Way - Cursos non Exterior in Brazil, says these three destinations are 'the best countries to get visas for'. She adds that they also sell many courses in Ireland, Malta and South Africa. 'For these destinations it is not difficult to extend the visa and [this] is an important point to increase business.'

Kostevskaya in the Ukraine says that it is easiest for their clients to gain visa acceptance for Malta, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and some Western European countries. She continues, 'Almost every student who has been refused an American or British visa can still go to Malta. This country is very visa friendly and we would usually recommend those students who have never travelled before to study English in Malta first.'

New Zealand has also benefited from the tightening of Australian visa regulations, according to Craig McLean Wallace, Academic Director of Queens Academy of English in New Zealand.

'A small number of our students have been accepted for tertiary study in Australian institutions,' he relates, 'but the processing time for Australian student visas has been so slow that they have faced the prospect of not getting there in time for the next semester, and have therefore opted instead for a local New Zealand tertiary institution.'

Transparent rules

Despite all the problems some visa regulations present, agents and students are aware that such measures are important and necessary in today's global climate. More important to visa applicants is that the regulations are transparent. As Clark Egnor at Leap Intensive English Programme at Marshall University in the USA says, 'Getting rejected without any specific explanation is probably the worst part of the visa process. This summer, we heard such sad tales from students in China, Brazil, Peru, India and other countries. After students spend much money for the visa application, travel to the embassy for the interview and then wait for weeks and weeks for any response, it's heart-breaking to get rejected, sometimes with no specific explanation.'

Inna Kostevskaya of SAM Travel Company in the Ukraine says that although the UK's regulations are relatively tough and the percentage of refusals high, the destination remains popular among their clients. 'The visa requirements are strict but clear and transparent. In many cases the result of visa application is quite predictable - good financial support and other documents which demonstrate a strong financial and social commitment to the Ukraine and a well-travelled passport are in most cases a guarantee of successful visa application. The interview procedure with a visa officer at the British consulate is also quick and efficient.'

Much can also depend on the helpfulness of the visa issuing office and this varies widely. Some agents, such as Elena Perutskaya, Director of FEOD in the Ukraine, say that they receive absolutely no support from embassies or consulates. Elba Pazos de Marteau of Proyectos Educatours SA in Venezuela complains of the unclear instructions they are given. 'Embassies and consulates are not helpful at all,' she says. 'One thing is what they say and ask for and another thing is when they interview students.' She is particularly critical of the British Council in Caracas, which operates a placement scheme and does not refer students to agents.

'We believe that in the near future Australia will turn into the main country for studies,' adds de Marteau. 'Rules are more definite and straightforward and officials seem to be more helpful and willing to receive students.'

Other agents find their local embassies to be more amenable and this can have a direct influence on student numbers. Le Thi Yen Binh of ICED in Vietnam says that the Australian and UK embassies often organise training courses for agents. 'This is the major [reason] for the increase in numbers of students who can get an entry visa,' she says.

Ireland has made efforts to help the visa process in Beijing. A full-time Education Ireland representative in the Irish Embassy has been given a role that includes the remit to 'liase on education issues with the embassy and visa office staff'.

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