Technology can help with student visas. Why not use it?
Despite assurances from UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI) that delivery plans are “on course”, concerns are growing that visa delays will seriously impact this year’s international student intake.
In fact, last month, in a message to UK-bound students, British High Commissioner to Nigeria Catriona Laing advised students to apply for their visas “much earlier than you think you need” if they plan to begin their studies this academic year.
Similarly, the British High Commissioner to Kenya, Jane Marriott, urged those looking to come to the UK to “apply six weeks in advance”.
Streamlining the application process
Admittedly, UKVI is facing unprecedented pressure and, rightly, the current priority is to process visas for Ukrainian citizens. However, the system would have been under strain regardless, due to the influx of international students.
In 2019, there were 300,000 students across the world who had applied to study in the UK, but in 2022, the number doubled to 600,000 – at the government’s behest.
It’s not just the UK that’s struggling to keep up. Canada is currently trying to process a visa backlog of more than 2.1 million applications, causing delays for international students bound for Canada.
With processes, logistics and practicalities around visa delays facing new and uncharted territory, the higher education sector must support UKVI – and other such bodies – to streamline the application process.
To help avoid disappointment and minimise delays, Laing urged international students to submit all their documents in one go – including exam results, Confirmation of Acceptance for Studies and evidence of English proficiency.
In some cases, this can be easier said than done. The frustration for students is that technology could make the process much quicker and simpler. This is especially true for the English language proficiency requirement.
English language testing
Currently, students must go to a physical testing centre, most of the time in their home country, and sit a test in person. While there are many circumstances when completing the English language test in person is advantageous, a digital certification would improve the experience, offering flexibility and peace of mind in the face of the current processing backlog.
Given the technology exists to conduct these tests digitally, there are few reasons for governments not to make the most of it.
Language proficiency tests typically consist of four elements: reading, writing, listening and speaking. That last element is especially important as a vehicle to confirm that the individual sitting the test can genuinely understand and speak the language.
Screen monitoring technology can watch how the participant is using their computer or device while participating in a virtual speaking test. If they tried to look up a translation or use any sort of software to manipulate the test, it would be easy for the examiner to see.
Live audio analysis can determine changes in speech patterns or additional noises to identify if there is someone else in the room speaking on the participant’s behalf or trying to assist them with their speech.
On top of all that, artificial intelligence can analyse the video feed to monitor the participant’s posture shifts, eye movements and other behaviours. This technology can flag any irregularities to the examiner in the test to help determine if the participant could be using other devices or visual aids in the room, or if someone else is there helping them.
The recording of the test can also be analysed to scan for irregularities before granting a result.
The other component is ensuring that the participant doing the proficiency test is the same person who is granted a visa and arrives on our shores. This is a process UKVI is already familiar with, using a recently submitted photo of the applicant and matching it with the passport and application.
And, if it’s a university sponsoring the student’s visa application, they can also have access to the student’s application details and test results to verify that the student who arrives on campus is the one who took the test.
Ultimately, the possibility that international students may miss the start of the year due to visa delays is a dire prospect, which requires a focused response – and urgently.
UKVI and universities embraced technology throughout the pandemic, so it stands to reason that technological innovation is the key to solving the current bottlenecks.
Any mechanism to reduce the hurdles international students face when applying for a visa must be considered and, where possible, implemented. Adopting a modern approach to English testing is vital to dismantling visa delays and protecting the student experience.
Lil Bremermann-Richard is the chief executive officer at Oxford International Education Group, a leading provider of digital education tools. She has more than 20 years’ senior management and leadership experience in education, including roles with Cavendish College, South Thames College and BPP University. In addition to her current position as group CEO at Oxford International, Lil also serves as an advisory board member for IDP Connect, is a founding member and advisory board member at Business Women in Education and non-executive director at Corndel Limited.