Study visas are essential yet often overlooked when it comes to higher education internationalisation policies and planning. While international students must be admitted by a host institution and its host country, these are separate and often uncoordinated processes.
With varying requirements and turnaround times, the process of securing a study visa can be a major challenge for many in accessing an international education, as well as a major source of frustration for those who work in university international affairs.
Our research was based in South Africa, the largest and strongest higher education system in Sub-Saharan Africa and major receiver of international students from the region.
Based on our larger research project of African student mobility, with Professor Chika Sehoole at the University of Pretoria, this particular study focused on study visas, with Kopgang Paulidor and Yann Axel Mpaga, based on 51 interviews with international students in seven universities across South Africa.
Major visa obstacles
We uncovered considerable confusion, including conflicting information and procedures, burdensome finances associated with the visa application, and unanticipated processing delays, all of which negatively influenced their studies.
While the results may not necessarily be universal within the country or elsewhere, they shed much needed light on a central challenge to international student mobility that is fundamental yet remains largely under-investigated.
Despite the stated requirements on immigration department websites, many international students struggle in the process of obtaining the necessary application items, which can be unclear and inconsistent.
For example, all international students must undergo criminal background checks, referred to in South Africa as police clearances.
Students seeking to study abroad do not have presumption of innocence but rather have the burden of proving they are not former criminals in every country where they had formerly lived. This application requirement can be overwhelming for many internationals given the differing requirements and procedures by country.
Conflicting or unattainable information
In addition to the ambiguity of how to obtain the various requirements, the written information provided by organisations might be conflicting or unattainable. In many cases, students have reported embassy requests for items that are not listed on the immigration department website.
While the South African immigration office does not require a SAQA – South African Qualifications Authority – certificate, for example, we received numerous reports of South African embassies that did. This confusion increases a student’s risk of not obtaining the study visa in time to officially register at the university.
Additionally, South African embassies abroad have required proof of medical insurance during the entire study period, while only yearly contracts are available.
Each of the application documents can take considerable time and processing times can vary noticeably. Many have waited months for police clearance results, for instance.
Such requirements are doubly troublesome when the duration to obtain each of the necessary items varies. The same documents are also necessary in applying for visa renewals and due to unforeseeable processing times, students risk overstaying and then being banned from re-entry.
Documents lost, mistakes made
Adding to the confusion and unforeseeable waiting periods to obtain the required application materials are further frustrations and additional time lost for those having to return with documents that might get lost in processing or have not been correctly interpreted during the previous visit.
There have also been instances when visas were issued with mistakes, such as omitting or incorrectly stating the name of the institution on the study visa. Without this crucial information, the university cannot allow the student to register and the student is therefore often obliged to apply for a new study visa.
Given what appears as insurmountable challenges, we also heard of cases in which students submitted falsified documents as the only means to comply with the seemingly impossible requirements.
High visa, academic and personal costs
Another common hurdle for many international students is financing the visa.
Besides the stated application fee – R425 (US$29) plus required third party processing fee if applying in South Africa of R1,350 (US$94), during the write-up of this study – are the costs associated with obtaining the necessary documents.
Many students must personally finance any unanticipated travel and accommodation between the diplomatic representation in their home country and their actual residence, sometimes related to an organisation’s processing delays.
The costs can be especially burdensome for those coming from African countries where the gross domestic product is a small fraction of that in South Africa.
A major academic consequence for international students, and why this topic is especially relevant for higher education, is the risk of not being able to start or continue with their studies.
We heard numerous cases of students who had to defer their admissions or started the academic term significantly behind.
Many interviewees also expressed how the stress of the visa process negatively impacted their ability to concentrate on their studies and to be academically successful. Several also questioned their decision to study abroad given the unanticipated anxiety and costs.
Universities provide support
Not all students struggle in the visa application process and the extent of challenges will, of course, vary. We received reports of varying degrees of cooperation and assistance from different organisations.
Among the results of this study are that international students tend to regard their international affairs offices positively and as supportive agents in the process compared to governmental offices.
Related, another reoccurring theme was the significant role of university staff, who often have little influence in immigration policies or decisions, but have managed to identify loopholes or make exceptions in registering students, at least temporarily.
Such individualised assistance was reported as vital due to immigration processing delays. Without such agency on the part of the universities, it is likely many of these students would not have been able to study in the country.
In sum, the metaphor of sliding doors indicates the hit-or-miss enactment of immigration policies in that the obstructions and eventual results seem unforeseeable.
The almost haphazard nature of securing study visas might be why several students described themselves as being ‘lucky’.
However, such challenges can be avoided in bettering coordination efforts by all organisations involved.
Namely, country embassies abroad must have clear and consistent practices regarding how their immigration policies are interpreted and implemented.
Findings suggest that most of the challenges in trying to obtain a South African study visa occurred outside the country, which is significant given most international students apply from home.
Those who applied within South Africa appeared to have somewhat less difficulty with the introduction of a third-party visa processing centre, which raised application costs considerably but saved wait time.
As is being done within South Africa, embassies abroad should also accept proof of university admission without requesting additional educational verification documents to determine whether students are qualified for further study. Eligibility should be determined by universities, not a second time by immigration affairs.
University international offices tend to be understaffed, despite their important role in not only internationalising the university, but also dealing with many complex immigration cases.
We encourage institutional leaders to increase their support system for international students, particularly when it comes to assisting and facilitating students’ study visa applications prior to their arrival.
More efforts such as these suggested would also benefit the host institutions and host countries by ensuring that as many of those who are admitted to universities actually attend.
While the study was limited to South Africa, it is quite likely that similar and perhaps even more trying cases and country challenges exist elsewhere.
Professor Jenny J Lee is a professor in the Center for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Arizona in the United States and a visiting scholar at the University of Cape Town in South Africa.
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