International students are "paying through the nose for a woefully inadequate document-checking service" for UK study visas, say universities. Some students are waiting 30 days for checks on the documents and biometric information they need, according to Universities UK.
The problems started when outsourcing company Sopra Steria took over the service in November, says UUK and has rejected suggestions its charges are excessive.
UUK, which represents all 136 UK universities, says it is concerned that if Sopra Steria is struggling now, it will be completely overwhelmed by the more than 40,000 overseas students arriving ahead of the autumn term.
Until last November, students were able to arrange document checks through their local post offices. Now, universities say applicants too often face:
- waits of at least two weeks, sometimes longer, for appointments
- difficulties accessing and processing information online
- a support line charging £2.50 a minute
- paying up to £200, on top of the cost of the visa, for a premium service, still not getting appointments but being refused refunds
- long journeys to Sopra Steria centres for fast-track appointments
Elisa Calcagni, who is studying for a doctorate at Cambridge and comes from Chile, said she struggled for weeks to get an appointment and eventually decided to pay for a "fast-track" appointment in Croydon, two hours away.
"Despite booking a timed appointment, there was a waiting time of an hour and then the system wasn't working properly leading to further delays," she says.
In addition, the website is not geared up for use by students with visual impairments, says UUK.
Southampton student Khalid Elkhereiji found the website would not allow him to log on as it was incompatible with his screen reader.
"This is not a problem I face with other websites."
When he finally logged on with the help of a sighted person, he found no appointments available in Southampton and the university had to intervene.