For agents dealing with visa applications on behalf of their clients, having a good working relationship with visa processing staff in their local embassy is vital. Yet many report varying experiences when dealing with local consular staff, often dependent on the country they are located in, the individual staff that work in the embassy and whether they are a member of an agency association. One thing is clear however, there are no set standards in place for working with visa officials and for many agents the whole process can make or break their businesses.
One of the major gripes experienced by agents working with embassies in their own country is that they are not kept well enough informed about the frequent visa policy changes that take place. Hana Hercher from into Education in the Czech Republic says, “They do not inform us about any changes. We have to find out what the procedure is every year again. We mostly work with the embassies of the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Argentina. I would say the cooperation with all of them is about the same they are willing to answer our questions but it takes a lot of time.”
Maria Morgacheva from Svetlana-S in Russia says that the level of information received from embassies very much depends on which country they belong to. “The most helpful in keeping us up-to-date are Australia, Ireland and Canada [through means such as] seminars and lectures,” she says. “The worst are the UK and Germany.”
While personal experiences obviously vary widely, key activities organised by embassies that are greatly appreciated by agencies include seminars, training sessions, sending out regular newsletters or email alerts and generally keeping lines of communication open. Nishidhar Reddy, Managing Director at Atlas Consultants in India says that the local embassies in New Delhi are very good at updating local agents in India with any changes in procedure that take place. “The Australian high commission in New Delhi is very good at this and so is the New Zealand high commission too,” he says. “Generally we know about all the changes before or as soon as they get announced via emails.”
Reddy continues that both the Australian and New Zealand governments organise regular workshops for agencies in India. However, he adds, “The Canadian high commission does not offer such programmes and the USA does not encourage agents.”
A key factor that seems to make a difference to agencies’ experiences with their local embassies is if there is a local agency grouping that provides a unified voice through which agencies can communicate with the visa processing officers. Providing one point of contact through which an embassy can update a large group of agents also makes communication easier for visa staff as well. Reddy confirms that members of the Association of Australian Education Representatives in India and the New Zealand Specialist Agents in India are regularly updated by the respective high commissions in India. He adds, “The Canadian high commission and the UK Border Agency both do not recognise any agency organisation maybe information would be better if they did support an agent organisation in the future.”
Ryuki Hayashi, Secretary General of national agency association Jaos in Japan, says that the association has a very productive relationship with lots of the foreign embassies in Japan for the benefit of members. Embassies contact the offices of Jaos with any changes in their visa application procedure and Jaos passes the information onto members. As well as this, Hayashi narrates that every year representatives from Jaos and Foreign Government Educational Representatives (FGER) in Japan representing the USA, Australia, Ireland, the UK and Canada have a meeting to exchange information. “At the meeting, both sides present their updated information on study abroad and education followed by a discussion on the trends of the study abroad industry,” he says. “It’s continuously been held since 1987.”
As well as providing information regarding policy changes to agents, some embassies in Japan also go further in efforts to promote their country’s educational opportunities. Hayashi says, “The British Council, Australian and US embassies sometimes hold workshops to inform their educational merits to agents.” However, this approach is very much dependent on the remit of the staff employed at the embassy. “New Zealand provides less service than ever because they no longer have a person in charge of the development of international educational exchange,” says Hayashi.
In France, agencies who are members of Unosel also benefit from the good relationship established between the association and other government representatives in the country. “For me the most active are Malta I have met the ambassador and we [have spoken] about the way to improve collaboration and Ireland next meeting in November,” says Kseniya Yasinska at Unosel. “These two countries are providing me with regular updates and invitations to their events and workshops and I have direct contact with them.” Yasinska adds, “I think there is a need to meet each other, to communicate the problems and suggest improvements. If there is any important problem, an official letter to the ambassador or his assistant has to be done in order to establish the problem in writing.” Sinem Bayraktutan, Regional Manager at Atlas Private Educational Services in Turkey, believes that the relationship between embassies and agencies in some countries is changing for the better. He points out that the UK consulate has recently launched an agency panel scheme in Turkey that has opened communication channels about particular student visa applications and other developments. “Now embassies understand the important role of agencies in the international education sector, they are more open to develop a relationship with reliable and reputable agencies,” he says. “Embassies have realised the fact that keeping the agencies updated will increase the quality and quality of the students and help to develop the market.”
For some embassies, teaching agencies how to best advise students about the opportunities in their country is also part of their remit. “The UK and Australia hold agency training sessions and offer online training programmes, exams and certificates, which encourages agencies to improve their knowledge,” says Bayraktutan, who adds that other services are also on offer at some embassies. “They provide comparative statistics and numbers in particular visa sectors so agencies get more reliable information about the potential of the industry, current trends and changes.”
However, attention to the core business of dealing with visa applications and communicating any problems quickly and efficiently is particularly appreciated. Maria Elena Bartholemew at Inter-Ed in the Philippines says that after 32 years in the business, the agency has a very good relationship with embassies. “All embassies Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Switzerland, the USA and the UK we work with have been helpful to us, including the US embassy, which is known to be aloof with agents,” she says. “The US, Canadian, New Zealand and Swiss embassies give us an open door policy if we need to talk to them to make enquiries regarding visas.”
Such open communication between agencies and embassies is not universal however, and delayed responses to email and phone enquiries a seemingly simple requirement in the age of instant communication remain a bugbear for many. Hercher in the Czech Republic says, “It would be good if they answered our emails within two days and were easily reachable on the phone, which is usually not the case.”
Dealing with visa refusals
An agency’s main business relies on their being able to successfully apply for and receive a visa on behalf of their clients. So making sure that an application is submitted correctly to the visa offices and amended should any problems arise is an essential part of the agency service to students. Yet a surprisingly high proportion of agents have horror stories to tell when it comes to student visas being refused without a proper reason.
Peter Kovac, Director of G8M8 Great Mate in Australia says that they only deal with the Australian embassy in Vienna and visa refusals are “always unclear and vague most of the time”. Handan Tunaboylu from End Inspection in Turkey says that visa refusals are usually accompanied by a “standard reason”, while Maria Morgacheve from Svetlana-S in Russia says that a reason for a visa refusal, “sometimes doesn’t correspond with documents submitted”.
Again, visa refusal decisions depend on the embassy in question with some country representatives certainly scoring badly in this respect. “Australia and New Zealand do give genuine reasons for declining the visa and it’s very helpful for us as agents and in fact trains us not to commit such errors next time. The USA and Canada are pretty hopeless in this respect,” says Nishidhar Reddy from Atlas Consultants in India.
Therefore, membership of an association such as Belta in Brazil can be a real advantage. Maura Leão, former President of Belta says, “As [embassies] trust Belta, members are promptly invited to attend training and can count on the association to address any difficulties they might have. Over the last six years, the association has developed this kind of relationship with many consulates.”