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Visa tough times

Delays and backlogs are becoming the post-Covid norm for language students dealing with immigration services around the world, as Melanie Butler reports

Ireland is the latest of the major EFL destinations to experience a post-Covid student visa crisis, with the Irish Embassy in Ankara, Turkey, struggling to keep up with demand for visas. The first four months of 2022 saw double the number of visa applications than were received in 2019, before Covid hit.

At the end of March this year, the Embassy there warned of ’severe delays’, with applications taking an average of 14 weeks, according to Ireland’s Justice Ministry, up from eight weeks previously.

In New Zealand, the visa surge has not yet started, because the border will not be fully re-opened until the end of July, although controlled numbers of students have already been allowed in. Education Minister Chris Hipkins claims that this gradual reopening of borders will “…spread the demand for visa processing and we will absolutely be able to give [students] a timely decision so that they can make their plans for 2023. Some might just squeeze in for this for the second half of 2022.”

In Australia, which opened its borders last December, visas for English language students are now taking up to 78 days to clear, according to information on global visa processing times published on the Ministry of Internal Affairs website. The time lag from visa application to decision rises to a maximum of seven months for undergraduate students, eight months for PhD candidates and up to a full year for those wishing to enrol in vocational colleges.

Meanwhile, Canada, which is busy designing a new way to fast-track its international students into permanent residents, is facing delays in getting such students into the country in the first place. At the beginning of June there was a backlog of 173,000 student visa applications waiting for decisions, with a further 35,500 student visa extensions stacking up.

According to Immigration. Refugees and Citizenship Canada, the average time required to issue a student visa is currently 12 weeks for applications received from overseas. However, students in some regions, particularly those in South Asia and Africa, are reporting much longer waiting times.

One student lobby group in Bangladesh is reporting student waiting times of five months or more, while in India, Canadian broadcaster CBC found examples of students who have started their Canadian degree courses online, but have still not been able to obtain a visa six months after face-to-face teaching resumed.

In neighbouring United States, a recent Senate hearing was told that numbers of international students enrolling in American universities had fallen 7% between 2016 and 2019, while numbers going to Canada had increased 72% during the same period.

While US officials admit that visa backlogs have grown in part as a hangover from Covid, embassy closures and immigration bans from the Trump era, they say two-thirds of visa centres are now back up and running, and the system should be at full capacity by the end of 2023.

The US government has promised to prioritise student visas this summer, pointing out that it issued a record number of student visas last year and expects to break the record again this year. However, observers report that huge backlogs of general visa applications, particularly from Latin America and the Philippines, may slow down the process for students from these countries.

Unsurprisingly, the UK too has seen a slowdown in processing times for student visas, from an average of three weeks to a current estimated five to six weeks. According to the UK Visa Immigration service (UKVI), this is due to the need to prioritise applications from Ukrainian refugees, which has slowed down work in all other areas.

Most fast-track routes using the priority system, which normally allow visas to be issued in days, were temporarily closed in mid-March. However, according to the Live Mint India website, a special exception has been made for Indian travellers who can still access priority and super-priority services. This means that, for an extra cost, visas can be obtained within four days and one day respectively.

Normally none of this would have any impact on English language students, who can enter the UK for up to six months using a standard visitor visa. However, according to Relocate Magazine, ‘Even straightforward visitor applications are now taking six to eight weeks to process, regardless of the urgency.’

The visitor visa took its toll on attendees at the recent Iatefl conference as well, who were only permitted to apply for their visa 14 days before the conference began. After submitting their online visa applications, they received emails informing them that the average time for issuing a visa was now 28 days.

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Melanie Butler
Melanie Butler
Melanie started teaching EFL in Iran in 1975. She worked for the BBC World Service, Pearson/Longman and MET magazine before taking over at the Gazette in 1987 and also launching Study Travel magazine. Educated in ten schools in seven countries, she speaks fluent French and Spanish and rather rusty Italian.
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