January 2010 issue

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Visa equity

Visa regulations are all about finding the right balance between enforcing national security and allowing citizens from other countries, with genuine motives, to enter a country to work or study. The ultimate aim is equity in the visa process – systems that deter fraudsters and welcome revenue-building migrants. Gillian Evans explores the latest visa developments.

For the international education market, visas can be a bit of a headache. On the one hand, they must be rigorous enough to ensure only those with genuine motives are allowed entrance, and on the other hand, they need to be transparent, easily understood and fair to allow entry for those who want to study in another country. To this end, governments are constantly overhauling their visa regulations and tweaking their policies to create something that is tough but easy to navigate. This does mean that visa regulations are constantly changing. For education agents – and schools – this can present huge problems, as Camila Medeiros, ETC Head Office Coordinator in Brazil, highlights. “I feel that some language schools know less [about visas] than us agents from another country,” she asserts.

Since the threat of global terrorism has gripped the world, visa regulations in many countries have been under constant revision to try to ensure a watertight system that only allows genuine students through. While creating a tough visa environment on the one hand, governments are also keen to encourage a business worth billions of dollars. After all, the English language teaching sector in the key eight markets alone is estimated to be worth over US$12 billion (see Language Travel Magazine, November 2009, pages 40-44).

Last year, Ireland’s government published its visa proposal, which is currently under discussion and includes 20 amendments to the current system to ensure only bone fide students gain entry to Ireland and to put a stop to any bogus colleges (see Language Travel Magazine, December 2009, page 35).

Some of the proposals covered in the discussion document include creating a two-tier system for students with Tier 1 reserved for degree level and above, and Tier 2 for the English language and further education sectors; capping the length of time a student can spend in Tier 2 to two years and the overall time present in Ireland as a student to five years overall (with exceptions for those at Masters and PhD level or on long-term courses such as medicine); and a tighter inspection system for education providers.

Although the main bulk of Ireland’s English language students are from EU/EEA countries, non-EEA students make up a valuable contribution to the market, and Francis Crossen from the Dublin School of English in Dublin is concerned that if these proposals are adopted it could have a severe effect on Ireland’s education industry. He comments, “One thing that is certain is that Irish schools rely on non-EU/EEA countries to provide growth in this [adverse] economic climate and if measures are put into place that will further restrict access to Irish schools then I fear the worst.” Ireland’s neighbour, the UK, is currently trying to get to grips with its new points-based system (PBS) for immigration, which was introduced in April last year. Unsurprisingly, the implementation of the system has not been without its teething problems. In Hong Kong alone, for example, only 30 per cent of study visas were approved just after the new regulations were brought in compared with 100 per cent in 2008, according to a report in the Guardian newspaper, and severe delays in visa issuance have meant that many more students have missed their course start dates.

Tony Millns at English UK confirms that there have been problems with the introduction of the PBS. “There were certainly many instances in April and May of visa refusals for trivial reasons, and we had to work closely with UK Border Agency to ensure that member centres included all the information required on visa letters and that ECOs did not refuse simply because some detail was missing,” he says. Now, according to Millns, the situation is much improved, with some centres reporting 100 per cent success in their prospective students’ visa applications, although other English UK members still report problems.

“There are certainly continuing instances of decisions not in accordance with the policy guidance, and delays in a number of visa posts,” relates Millns. “There are also some cases where agents believe that the British Embassy in their country ‘does it differently’ and put pressure on centres to do it the way they think will work, rather than following the central policy guidance.” However, as Millns points out, it took 18-to-24 months for the Australian PBS – on which the UK version is based – to settle down, so teething problems are only to be expected. This changeover was not helped, however, by IT problems, as acknowledged by UKBA (see LTM, November 2009, page 6). The next phase of change, in February, is the introduction of the IT-based sponsor management system, which will enable schools to issue electronic confirmation-of-enrolments. Many are unsurprisingly concerned about ensuring a smooth transition to the electronic system – and any other changes in the offing, given Brown’s latest student visa review announced (page 7) – but hopeful about an ultimate improvement to perceptions of ease and transparency of visa issuance.

But it is not only regulatory changes that can cause problems for agents. British visa processing has also been centralised, which means that for Japan, Hong Kong and South Korea, for example, visa issuance has moved to the Philippines. According to Diana Lowe of ABLS, this has had a negative effect on Japanese numbers in particular. “This, according to agents, seems to have caused delays and inconvenience for a sector of the market which has previously had little problem with regard to obtaining visas.”

The processing of Pakistani visa applications has moved to Abu Dhabi, and this, together with “technical problems” led to a pile-up of applications (see page 6). By the end of October last year, 5,000 people were affected by the backlog in visa processing – mainly first-time applicants such as students – and a further 9,000 appeals against visa refusals were pending.

France is another country that has recently revised its visa procedure. Since June last year, the student carte de séjour has been replaced by the VLSTS (Visa Long Séjour valant Titre de Séjour). Visa processing, which had previously only taken one day, now takes two-to-four weeks. International students then have three months in which to take the necessary steps to validate their visas, which includes attending a medical examination.

According to Virginia Vias, Managing Director of Ifalpes in Annecy, the new system has encouraged more abuse of visa rules, particularly among Chinese students. “Students apply for a course, pay registration fees and once they obtain the visa they come to France but they do not go to the school they enrolled at,” she explains. “Sometimes we get an email saying they have decided to stay in Paris or some other destination in France. This is possible as they no longer need a student card before contacting the Office Française de L’Immigration et de l’Integration (OFII), they have three months to do this.”

For those students who do make it to the school, they face a complicated visa procedure, which involves sending a registered letter, something most of them have never done, says Vias. After sorting out their paperwork, students then have to wait for an appointment from OFII, which is often after their three-month limit is up, as there is only one OFII for three provinces in their region.

Canada also tightened its visa procedures for some nationalities. In July 2009, the government suddenly imposed visa requirements on visitors – including students studying for under six months – from Mexico and the Czech Republic. “This will certainly negatively affect future numbers from one strong market [Mexico] and another emerging market [Czech Republic] for Canada,” asserts Linda Auzins, Acting Executive Director of national language school association, Languages Canada.

In Malta, there have been some visa problems experienced with specific nationalities, according to Isabelle Pace Warrington, Executive Officer of Feltom. “In the last few years it has been difficult to get visas for nationals from Colombia, China and Iran because of security considerations,” she reports. She says that there have been some improvements in 2009 but that “it is too early to assess how great this improvement has been as these are still small markets for Malta”.

Another aspect hampering Malta’s visa issuance is its lack of consular offices around the world. “The distance students have to travel to apply for a visa is sometimes a huge hurdle for them to submit their applications,” she says. “In addition, we have to rely on Representations Agreements with other countries and this has in some cases led to a lack of communication and long delays.”

Conversely, Ireland improved its visa regime in July, by adding Taiwan to its list of visa waiver countries. Significant new business is hoped as a result and Irish schools group, MEI, organised a fam trip to Taiwan to build business connections in November. In October, a Taiwanese business delegation consisting of 60 companies and student agencies also visited Ireland.

And within the last 18 months, Australia eased its visa procedure for China. In 2008, Chinese students were moved from Assessment Level (AL) 4 to AL3. In AL4 students wanting to study English have to have an Ielts score of 5.0 or above, which restricts English studies to those seeking academic preparation programmes. AL3 enables students to enrol with a much lower English proficiency and sources hoped the change would open up the Chinese market. However, Sue Blundell at English Australia says that it has taken time for agents to adapt. “Chinese agents have for many years – as an AL4 country – become very comfortable with recruiting students for academic pathway English courses and understand this profile,” she asserts. “When the change to AL3 was introduced it was initially difficult for agents to understand this ‘different’ profile of students and there were challenges in presenting applications to the Department of Immigration that showed good reasons for doing a stand-alone English course. Initially, therefore, there was a high rejection rate.” Nevertheless, Blundell says this is now changing and “we are starting to see increasing numbers gaining visas to do stand-alone English courses”.

As is evident through the experiences of individual countries, immigration policy can significantly influence business opportunities in the study abroad industry, and any amendments to visa systems are not without their problems. However, if government agencies work together with the international education sector, improved operating conditions are possible that can build business within robust processes.

Talking to government

An important job for many language schools’ associations is to lobby government on important policy issues that affect the international education market, and visas is one area where collaboration between the international education industry and governments is crucial. Linda Auzins of Languages Canada speaks for most major language schools’ associations when she says, “Immigration advocacy is a high priority for the association.”

Last summer, Languages Canada submitted its Immigration Position Paper which outlines five major areas of concern, including ensuring a transparent visa process, so that bona fide students are not dismissed without a review process; Languages Canada-accredited language training programmes to become the only providers who can issue Letters of Acceptance for Study Permit applicants for English and French language courses; and for Canada to allow Study Permit holders to work up to 20 hours per week.

In the USA, IEP associations, UCIEP and AAIEP have been campaigning for short-term students to be able to enter the country on a tourist visa if studying for less than six months.

In New Zealand where, in terms of visa regulatory changes, it has been rather quiet over the past year or so, English New Zealand has been “encouraging changes [and] better communication at operational level”, says Rob McKay, Chair of English New Zealand. He continues, “Immigration New Zealand is now working closely with English New Zealand at our workshops in markets such as China and Vietnam to make sure that visas for English-only study for bona fide students are approved.”

English UK is currently lobbying government on two issues to iron out some of the problems that have emerged through the new points-based immigration system, as Tony Millns at the association explains. “The first is to have a much quicker, cheaper and easier route for students who want to continue their studies in the UK, or who want to switch to another centre, to be able to extend their visa,” he says.

“The second is a fair and transparent and collaborative process for when the UKBA thinks there is a problem with a centre’s systems and controls, rather than the heavy-handed approach to suspension from the Register of Sponsors, which is happening at the moment.  We have been assured that the UKBA understands our case on both issues and is willing to work with us to review its processes.”

Work rights

Favourable work rights are a big attraction for many international students when they are choosing their study location. Camila Medeiros at ETC agency in Brazil reports that Ireland received a boost in Brazilian numbers thanks to its employment regulations. “The visa system in Ireland, which gives students the right to work while they study and get a one-year visa even though they have booked a six-month course brought us lots of clients. After that everyone wanted to study in Ireland. This year the demand has decreased because it was very hard to find a job in Ireland due to the economic/financial crisis.”

Since 2008 student visa holders in Australia no longer have to apply for a separate work permit but now have the right to work as soon as they start their course. This has certainly contributed to Australia’s attractiveness to international students. Languages Canada is hopeful the government will amend its regulations to extend off-campus work permission to students studying language programmes in addition to those studying in full-time degree courses at designated institutions.

In New Zealand, international students on a working holiday visa (WHV) can now study for up to six months as opposed to three months. “We haven’t really seen the full effects of this change yet,” says Rob McKay from English New Zealand. “It’s still a work in progress,” he adds. However, he says agreements are in place (pending final approval by The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade) with Canada, Germany, Japan, Taiwan and the UK so WHV holders from these countries can study at multiple providers for up to a total of six months. With demand for placements at an all time high, McKay is keen to expand the quota of WHV applicants per country. “One key point that we still need to work on is the quota per country – the demand is so high in some markets that agents are reporting that places on the scheme are all taken within a day of the new quota becoming available.” However, he acknowledges that when finally completed, “this is a crucial change which will allow us to compete effectively and significantly grow our sector of export education”.

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