Student visa application system
'shoddy' and 'unacceptable'
2 August 2019
Universities UK, the organisation which represents more than 130 higher education institutions, has received a stream of complaints from future foreign students and staff. They say that the customer service level of Sopra Steria, the French software company used by the Home Office to verify documents and scan fingerprints for visas, is ‘unacceptable’.
Last year, Sopra Steria was awarded a £91m, five-year contract to manage all aspects of UK visa services. Every year around this time, there is a surge in applications as an estimated 50,000 non-EU students apply for a Tier 4 visa before beginning their new courses in the Autumn.
An integral part of the UK visa process centres on each student providing biometric data at a Sopra Steria site. There are free appointments available but only at core centres in major cities like Birmingham Belfast, Glasgow and Croydon in south London.
When demand exceeds supply, then the student’s only option is to pay to visit an ‘enhanced service point’ or make a priority appointment. An emergency or next-day appointment can cost £200 and even a call to Sopra Steria’s phone line costs £2.50 a minute.
Alistair Jarvis, Chief Exec for Universities UK said:
‘As a result, some students are paying to fast-track their appointments and travelling to one of Sopra Steria’s centres, often many miles away from where they live.’
These extra costs are on top of the £475 fee for the visa itself, and the £300 immigration health surcharge to access the NHS.
Sopra Steria has agreed to provide additional ‘pop-up’ services on university campuses, but is charging £50 per consultation.
Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott said:
‘While other countries are falling over themselves to attract international students, this Tory government continues to subject them to a hostile environment.
Sopra Steria is yet another private contractor given millions in public funds by the Home Office, and providing a shoddy service.’
A spokesperson for Sopra Steria responded:
‘We are working closely with the Home Office, universities and higher education institutions across the UK to deliver the Tier 4 visa application service.
‘We are focused on adapting the service to respond to areas of greatest demand and are increasing capacity where needed.’
Who can apply for a Tier 4 visa?
Students from the EEA and Switzerland may continue to come to the UK under Free Moment until 31 December 2020 if the UK leaves the EU without a Deal, or 30 June 2021 in the event of a Deal. In either case, any EEA national wishing to study long-term in the UK must apply for the EU Settlement Scheme.
Foreign students from outside of the EEA and Switzerland may apply to study in the UK if they are over 16 and
- have been offered a place on a course
- can speak, read, write and understand English
- have enough money to support themselves and are self-funding.