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May 2005 issue

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The visa maze

Along with exchange rates, visa issues are often a primary factor in a student's choice of language travel destination. In their concern to safeguard security from 2001 onwards, many governments appear to have overlooked the effect that their visa policies have on a lucrative source of foreign revenue. Jane Vernon Smith explores the extent to which language schools' business is dependent on the ease of the immigration pathway.

Visa problems are a perennial irritant to those in the language travel industry, and the last 12 months have been no exception. Lack of information is a frequent cause of irritation. In Japan, for example, Nobuya Kita of Overseas Study Information Room is hindered by the fact that, "We cannot figure out how long it will take before [a US] visa is issued" to a client.

At Geos English Academy in Brighton, UK, Paul Clark has been irked by two recent cases of visa refusal for apparently superfluous reasons. While a Jordanian with pre-intermediate level English was told, "Your English is too good," a Korean was informed, "You can learn English more cheaply at home".

Similar inconsistency in the application of policy has been experienced in Malta. Here, despite a relatively high rate of visa approval, according to Feltom President, John Dimech, the association has been moved to speak out on the need to establish criteria for visa applications, following some confusion over when a visa is granted and inconsistency in the handling of visa extension applications. Changes to Maltese visa policy were in the pipeline at the time of writing, although no details were available.

The situation in New Zealand is similarly confusing, according to Cleve Brown, Director of Auckland-based Worldwide School of English. "On the one hand, [the government] says that New Zealand is looking for skilled migrants and that you can get points towards migration after your study. But then, on the other hand, they are declining applicants on the grounds that they don't believe they have sufficient reason to return home at the end of their course."

Another concern for Brown is the occurrence of "profiling" in certain markets – mainly within South East Asia and Eastern Europe. While applicants taking six months of university preparation are deemed acceptable, neither short-term nor long-term English language students fit the required profile. This means that, in order to be granted a visa, students who do not match the profile need evidence of "enormous" extra funds, says Brown.

Although no official policy changes have been made in New Zealand, Brown has also identified a clear tightening of the interpretation of visa regulations. Similar situations are also reported in Germany, Spain and Canada. In Vancouver, Worldwide Language Institute's Director, Sally Thompson, reports a tightening of visa requirements for students from a key source market, namely Vietnam. At the same time, Russian agent, Alexandre Prozorov, Managing Director at the Association des Enseignements de Français, notes, "We stopped our attempts to send students to Canada, [partly] because of great difficulties with obtaining a visa."

In Spain, Juan Manuel Sampere of Estudio Internacional Sampere relates that the student market most affected by increasingly difficult visa processes is the USA. "In the USA, students must go in person to a Spanish consulate, sometimes a thousand miles away, twice," he says. "First, for the presentation of documents, and a second time to pick up their passport with the visa." He explains that as a result, around 30 per cent of their US semester-programme students are opting to study for 12 weeks instead (no visa required) and have more lessons once in Spain. He suggests that other long-term students are undoubtedly put off. Students going to a Spanish embassy have to stay a night in a city too, as the embassies only open in the morning. "This [all] can increase the cost of the trip to Spain by up to US$2,000!" he says.

Although the vast majority of agents and educators understand the fundamental need for regulations, what is hard to accept is the lack of transparency in their application and lack of understanding of the export education market. While many problems arise as a result of the interpretation and application of the rules, the rules themselves can have an even greater impact. Areas such as cost, general ease of obtaining a visa and the right to work while studying are widely believed to be crucial determinants. Such discrepancies are especially significant in the case of English-speaking destinations, since a number of different countries are effectively in competition for the same business. If regulations are toughened in one market, students may opt instead for another.

The USA is a case in point. Since 2002, a series of changes has been implemented, including the introduction of a US$100 non-refundable application fee, on top of the actual visa fee - to fund the Sevis programme - and a requirement for all visa applicants to visit a US embassy in person. According to Kelly Franklin, Director of International Services at Maryville College in Maryville, TN, "All the steps taken to 'toughen up' the visa process have hurt the US. The extra fee, the extra trip to the embassy and the more thorough scrutiny slow things down and prevent many from coming."

While those planning long-term courses may not be put off, Franklin is concerned especially about the effect on short-term visitors, speculating that rather than risk losing US$100 if the visa is refused, students may try instead for countries that don't have such regulations or expenses. Clark certainly believes the UK may have picked up some students who would otherwise have gone to the USA. However, the UK has also had to contend with a toughening environment. Clark pinpoints the dramatic increase in visa charges over the past couple of years (see page 46), together with a climate in which it has become much harder for students from some countries to extend a visa once in the country. This, he says, has particularly affected China.

Now, since the start of 2005, the UK will only grant visas to non-European Union students if they intend to study at a registered language school. Applauded by Clark as "a very positive change", and the first step in a process to ultimately provide an accredited list of schools with quality assurance factored into the visa process, nevertheless, Anders Ahlund of EF International Language Schools believes there is also a risk that it will create a perception of a toughening climate in the UK that could lead to students choosing alternative destinations.

According to Azerbaijan-based agent, Gulya Useinova, Program Development Manager at KMT, difficulty in obtaining UK visas has already led students to seek courses elsewhere. South Africa has sometimes benefited from the stiffer regulations in both the US and UK, according to Luanne McCallum, Manager of Interlink School of Languages in Cape Town, and Gavin Eyre of Cape Communication Centre, also in Cape Town, attests, "South Africa still has very good visa regulations for the language traveller, and actively encourages visitors to our shore." Currently, students may enter South Africa on a tourist visa and then decide to switch to a study permit. However, changes are rumoured to be in the pipeline that could end this advantage.

Ireland, too, is attempting to toughen up its own immigration system in the face of visa abuse. Its plans initially led to an announcement earlier this year that students from outside the European Economic Area (EEA) would not be able to work part-time from April (see Language Travel Magazine, March, page 6). However, in light of representations made to government by the ELT industry, those studying at accredited institutions are now able to maintain their right to work part-time if they are studying for more than a year (see page 6).

Others, too, acknowledge the benefits of students' right to work. Mella Beaumont, Director of Programmes at Embassy CES, Australia and New Zealand, notes that although students can work part-time in Australia, longer work placements are not really possible under current visa conditions and "study and work (including paid work and internships) is a growing market in many countries, and Australia is effectively excluding itself from this niche".

Australia is also handicapped by higher-than-average visa fees, which may be less of a consideration for students, but at more than US$300, they are, according to agent, Mansuk Bae, Director of KAMC in Korea, "too much". With the further deterrent that students wishing to study an English language course with the title "diploma" must now obtain a vocational (VET) class visa, Australia is seen by some as less attractive than its near rival, New Zealand – although the recent piloting of visa applications by email could help improve its image (see Language Travel Magazine, February 2005, page 10). Meanwhile, according to Bae, "[Obtaining a] New Zealand visa is very easy, and the Embassy is cooperative with the agent."

The balance of advantage is constantly changing – so much so that it is difficult even for agents to remain abreast of the latest situation. Because of this, impressions formed on the basis of dealing with the visa authorities can be as important as the reality of studying in a particular market. This is confirmed by Mary Rose Blackley of Taupo Language & Outdoor Education Centre in Taupo, New Zealand, who observes, "Some NZIS offices do not realise their customer service dictates the foreign earnings to NZ in international student fees." Clark in the UK adds, "A Thai friend once told me of the hostility she sensed at one Embassy in Bangkok and the friendly welcome, including a cup of coffee, in another. One country was clearly more keen to sell a course to her daughter – and it worked!"

Some agents and students are not put off by visa difficulties. In Ghana, Nelson Akwasi Asante, Chief Executive Officer of Kimmie Tours Consulting, believes that this is all part and parcel of the job. Despite a history of visa refusals on the part of the UK, the USA and Canada, "We keep sending [students] in spite of all the challenges, because these are the destinations they prefer most," he says. On the other hand, what emerges clearly is that many students do tend to opt for destinations that are less problematic for them in visa terms. As Andrew Geddes of German language school, Eurasia Institute, puts it, "It is like water; water chooses the road with the least resistance!"

Geddes notes that "in general it can be said that visa policy practice [in Germany] is becoming tougher and more restrictive across the board". He relates that Chinese student numbers have dropped from 400 per week to 40 per week, since the German Embassy in Beijing set up an academic interview unit. Also, in India and Pakistan, he indicates that "students must pay the Embassy a large sum of money for the certification of authenticity [required from] lawyers hired by the embassy" to prove that their application is genuine.

All in the industry are aware of the reason for tightening visa regulations over recent years. However, in view of its impact on business, it is relevant to ask: are these measures serving their intended purpose of tightening national security? Franklin believes not. "[It's] generally a waste of time," he states. "Those who want to do harm can still easily get in." Likewise, Thompson observes, "Tourism continues to grow, and tourists from countries where student visas are being limited are allowed to come, so why not students?" In Spain, Estudio Sampere's Juan Manuel Sampere adds to the dissent. "Students do not understand, neither do I, why it is so difficult to obtain a student visa and, at the same time, there are more than one million 'illegal' people in Spain."

Thanks to the activity of language school associations like Education New Zealand (see box), governments are becoming increasingly aware of how visa regulations affect student demand for language courses, and the need to balance security with protecting the industry – which, in many countries, is a significant contributor to national earnings. Time will tell how successfully this is pursued.


A proactive approach in New Zealand

Visa and immigration policy undoubtedly has a major impact on the attractiveness of a country as a language travel destination and the industry can meekly accept this, or it can play a part in trying to influence policy.

New Zealand's educator association, Education New Zealand (EdNZ), is one body that has adopted a proactive approach. "The New Zealand Immigration Service (NZIS) is undertaking a review of student immigration policy, inspired by EdNZ and industry representations to the new Minister of Immigration," reports the association's Stuart Boag, with EdNZ leading an industry consultation with NZIS. EdNZ will base its case on written submissions from individual institutions, as well as its recently published report, "Impact of Immigration Policy on Enrolments", which examines in detail visa policy in a number of key markets, and assesses the ways in which New Zealand visa policy appears to differ significantly from that of other major language travel destinations.

The report finds that New Zealand's environment is favourable to language travellers in a number of areas, while identifying others where EdNZ would like to see changes to improve the environment for language travellers. New Zealand currently enjoys an advantage in terms of visa fees, which are low by international standards, as is the level of funds required as evidence of the ability to support oneself while studying. It also enjoys more flexibility in terms of the scope for changing visa status once in country, although, the report notes, this is not welcomed universally – Korean agents being reluctant to promote New Zealand as a destination, on account of this policy. Another area in which New Zealand scores is in terms of the scope offered for study at primary or secondary school level.

On the other hand, in terms of the work rights of students and their dependants, the report finds that New Zealand is significantly less permissive than Australia and the UK, although more liberal than both Canada and the USA. New Zealand's regulations are also less permissive in terms of the length of time for which permission to study will be granted and for which evidence of the applicant's ability to support him/herself is required.

The report notes, "While '[duration] of course' permission can be granted for students at some institutions, this is the norm in other countries, and New Zealand takes a relatively strict approach to 'funds' requirements for the full duration of a proposed course of study." Again, in terms of the opportunities for students to move on to work and residence in the country, New Zealand's policy is less favourable than that of Australia or the UK. Furthermore, the country lags behind them in terms of the number of visa processing locations and in the development of online application facilities.

Overall, a key finding is that, "The UK and Singapore are leaders in linking immigration policy and practice to strategies aimed at supporting the development of their export education sectors." EdNZ hopes to persuade policy makers to implement changes that will enable the country to compete for business on at least an equal footing. To this end, it believes New Zealand's immigration policy settings should be constantly benchmarked in terms of comparability with overseas competitor countries and fine-tuned accordingly, "to maintain the balance of any competitive advantage that might be gained through the present review".

Other destinations may find themselves suffering unless they too can get to grips with this important industry issue.


Visa Facts

USA

Waiting time can be long, as all applicants have first to be interviewed, and the procedure involves two stages: obtaining an interview appointment and then processing.

Cost: visa application processing fee (non-refundable if application turned down): $100; visa issuance fee: variable, according to country and type. Sevis fee of US$100 also required, also non-refundable.

Students are generally expected to have the financial means to complete their course without the need to work. However, they may be allowed to work part-time at the school where they are enrolled, and to work full-time during vacations.

Malta

Visa normally required for stays of more than 90 days.

Visa processing time is reported to take a minimum of 15 days.

Cost: single entry (one month's duration): US$40.

Australia

A student visa is required for all courses lasting more than three months, and can only be obtained for full-time, registered courses.

Electronic visa applications, currently being trialled in a number of countries, are said to be reducing waiting times.

Countries are placed into one of four categories, according to their perceived risk of illegal immigration, with higher risk countries subject to stricter regulations. Students from some countries have to have obtained an Ielts language proficiency score prior to application.

Visa fees are high by international standards, at AUS$410 (US$324) and AUS$55 (US$43) for permission to work.

New Zealand

A Visitor's Visa is required for travel to New Zealand and is all that is needed for stays of less than three months. For courses lasting longer than three months, a Student Visa or Permit is required, and will only be granted if the student has an offer of a place at an approved educational institution in the country.

Some students may require a Limited Purposes Visa to study in New Zealand.

Part-time work while studying is not normally permitted. Costs of visas depend on local currency and start at around US$150 for a student visa.

UK

Visa processing is quick, with 91 per cent of straightforward, non-settlement applications resolved within 24 hours and most applicants receiving a same-day service, according to the UK Visas website. Where an in-depth interview is required, it is the aim to process the application within 10 working days.

Cost: standard visa £36 (US$69); 1-year multiple entry visa £60 (US$115); 10-year multiple entry visa: £150 (US$288).

From January 2005, visas will only be granted for non-EU students for study at an accredited language school.

Students attending UK language schools may work part-time, subject to certain conditions.

South Africa

Study permit normally required for stays of more than 90 days. This must be obtained prior to entering the country.

A study permit allows students to work for up to 20 hours a week during term time and full-time during vacation periods.

Processing time is reported to vary between three days and 10 weeks, depending on country of origin.

Cost: Up to US$150, depending on country of origin and length of stay.

Canada

Students taking a course of six months duration or longer need a study permit prior to travelling and may need a temporary resident visa.

A study permit allows a student to work part-time on campus at the college or university at which they are registered. It can be renewed from within Canada if the student decides to continue studying in the country.

Waiting time for visas can be long – students are recommended to allow at least two months for processing.

Cost: Temporary Resident Visa $75 (US$62); Study Permit $125 (US$104).

Ireland

AVisa applicants must provide evidence that course fees have been paid in full (up to a maximum of E6,250) before approval.

From 18 April 2005, new students entering Ireland for study are no longer permitted to work unless attending a full-time course of at least one year's duration, leading to a recognised qualification.

Cost: single journey visa E60 (US$80); multiple journey visa E100 (US$134).


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