Friday, 11 September 2009

Visas: Delay, Humiliation, Expense and Economic Suicide

As I was sitting in a taxi yesterday travelling to a job interview, I got the usual diatribe from the driver about how foreigners are coming over to the UK and taking our jobs. Ironically, I always hear this from white taxi drivers who are clearly in work. This one added a new twist to his complaint by going on about how the foreign workers here send all their money home so they bring no benefit to the UK at all. Of course, bigots always jump over the facts to get to the most extreme aspect they can find. For a start the driver forgot that British workers overseas all around the world send money back to the UK and he would be offended if anyone tried to stop that. Secondly, when it comes to foreigners, all bigots somehow think that those people are exempt from all the laws that everyone living in the UK come under. The key one is that the bulk of workers are taxed at source through P.A.Y.E. (Pay As You Earn) taxation so they are contributing to the British economy every time they are paid. Only those working in the grey or black economies do not pay tax and that goes for anyone in that kind of work no matter their nationality. The third thing is that the driver seemed to assume that all migrant workers subsist without food or accommodation. Foreigners pay rent and in fact are often ripped off; they buy food and other consumer items, so in this way contribute to the economy. Of course, these basic facts never penetrate the minds of these bigots.

I suppose facts never got in the way of prejudice, as in the recent headline from the 'Daily Express': 'Immigrant Baby Boom Costs £1bn' with no realisation that the baby boom is actually among British middle class families who now insist on 3 children to fill up their 4 x 4 rather than having 2 children that they would have had 10 years ago. In addition, it forgets, that whilst immigrants do bring families with them, most economic migration is still by single young males. As the return of thousands of Poles to Poland at the start of the recession proved, these are often not people who have come to Britain to settle and raise a family. What we are seeing in terms of rising population is a long period of prosperity and to some extent a fashion. In the past glamorous celebrities would never talk about children or be photographed with them, now the trend is for them to breed or assemble large families and basically what celebrities do, the rest of the population will ape, when they can afford to. Already the recession has slowed the UK's birth rate.

As an aside, I wonder if there will ever be a taxi company that will advertise itself specifically as having non-racist drivers. I would certainly use them as I am getting sick of having to listen to 20 minutes of racist claptrap which stresses me out when I am on my way somewhere important. I would just love to have someone give me some feminist attitudes or some anti-capitalism campaigning when I got in a taxi. (I suddenly have this image of campaigner-comedian Mark Thomas running a taxi firm in which passengers got a blast of liberal ethics every time they travelled!) These days I tire of trying to catch the taxi drivers out by coming out with some line more extreme than theirs; a favourite was that seized heroin should be made available free to old aged pensioners on the National Health Service having the twin benefits of making the elderly happier and keeping down on future care bills. The other one is to revive Jonathan Swift's sharp satirical essay 'A Modest Proposal' (1729) on the consumption of babies to keep down the Irish population. See:

Holiday Visas
As usual I am wandering away from my chosen theme. To some extent this reflects the way my mind works, one thing sparks another and the posting reflects that. I come to visas, and there are lots of facets to these. I cannot tackle all of them so will focus on a couple of factors. Leaving aside work or study, many countries require visas even if you simply wish to go on holiday. The USA's 'War on Terror' has lifted this to a new level effectively forcing other countries to adopt the biometric approach that the US authorities feel is necessary and to some extent spreading US anti-Arab/anti-South Asian bigotry to other countries by default. When the Cold War ended many East European countries realised they could make good money out of enforcing visas that people had to pay for. This had nothing to do with regulating the movement of people, it was simply a national version of local councils' residents' parking schemes, it raised revenue.

France, which in the past was seen as a country sympathetic to peoples of different races, especially non-whites, now has a rigorous approach for visas even just for holidays. To get a visa for a holiday in France you have to go to the special office in South Kensington and are given a time, this is not the time of your appointment, it is the time when they open the doors to the tens of people waiting each day. Typically you will have to wait 7-8 hours to be processed. There are no facilities in the office, so make sure you take a lot of food, water and entertainment especially for children. The place is filled with sobbing, bored children. I suppose the French authorities do this to try to put off people from applying. Any British/EU friends you might have are barred from entering. Once inside applicants are called for interview. They expect children of 5 years old to attend interviews and from a woman I know who went through this process, she had to fight to be able to go into the interview with her 5-year old son who was naturally terrified of being questioned about his holiday plans by strange people in a formal office. I know this approach has long been used by Israeli authorities when families arrive in Israel on holiday, to check for terrorist intentions of the parents, be prepared many innocent people cannot take this level of questioning especially of their children. The attitude is: if you do not like it, do not try to come to our country.

Also be careful in trying to go to France if you are self-employed. You will be seen as unreliable. They assume that people who have work in another country such as the UK, will want to come back to it, but they seem to assume that any self-employed person will happily uproot their business and seek to establish it in France. Anyone who is self-employed needs a letter from their Chamber of Commerce, which in the UK is a club whereas in France is a regulatory body, but the French authorities seem not to understand national differences in this respect. They do not accept letters from a bank and in the case of the woman I know contested whether the branch she used was a genuine one, which would have enraged the manager who signed the letter, I am sure. Often at the South Kensington office, they will forget that they have actually processed you, so the office may close at the end of the day leaving you without your passport and no visa, again you have to fight often to get the documentation you need. It is quite easy to come away from a day there without your passport and no visa, despite paying for it, and having to make another appointment of the same kind. Once you have gone through all of this you get a 6-month visa. If you need another you have to start again. Clearly France is unhappy at receiving tourists from outside the EU and wants to put as many obstacles in the way as possible. These people are not potential immigrants, they are holidaymakers. When applying from the UK rather than an African, Asian or American state, you can assume they have a life in the UK that they are not going to throw over to move to France, though clearly the French authorities think their country is so wonderful that people would give up their legal right to live in another EU state to move there illegally. My suggestion is, if you are a non-EU citizen who wants to go to France, travel instead to Belgium or the Netherlands and simply drive into France as there are no border checks between these countries, you simply pass the border as you drive along the motorway.

Visas for International Students Coming to the UK
The other aspect about visas which has come to my attention is how much a mess the UK has got into over student visas. The 240,000 international students (i.e. students from anywhere outside the EU) form 14% of the university student population of the UK and even in 2004 this brought £4 billion per year (through paying rent; consumption of food, computers, etc. and fees) to the UK economy. The level rose 60% 1999-2004 and by 2020, it is expected that the number of international students in the UK will reach something like 600-700,000. Many universities are heavily dependent on the fees foreigners pay which are usually three times the level a UK student would pay. Income from fees alone amounted to £1.7 billion in 2008, a rise of 58% since 2003. There are 14 universities that have more than 5000 students from outside the EU and given that the average student body of a UK university is 20-24,000 this shows that they are vital to particular institutions. Given that many universities are shedding staff in their hundreds: Exeter got rid of 330 in 2008; Bournemouth 200 between 2007-8; London Metropolitan will be shedding 550-800 with some departments losing 40% of their teaching staff, it is clear that for many universities to survive needs the income international students bring in.

The UK has long been a popular destination for international students but has always faced competition from the USA and Australia. To some extent, the USA reduced its appeal with its harsh policies towards foreigners after September 2001, but eight years on it is recovering its market share. Even Tony Blair recognised the benefit the university 'industry' had to the UK economy. In 1999 and 2006 he extended rights for international students now to stay up to 2 years after completing postgraduate courses (most international students come for Masters courses, not undergraduate ones) and enabled them and their families to work more. He saw that attracting intelligent people to the UK not only had immediate income benefits but longer developmental benefits too.

Contrast that attitude to what is happening now. Reports show that the UK is facing far stiffer competition from across Europe. Portuguese universities have been compelled by their government to teach courses in English; Germany which is aiming to have 7.2 million international students by 2025 charges equivalent to only £55 for student visas compared to £145-325 for a UK visa and the fees are roughly the same as German students will pay rather than three times as more; French universities charge less for foreign students than domestic ones; courses are being taught in English in institutions as far apart as Belgium and Finland. So, in this competitive marketplace, the Border Agency introduces far more stringent entry requirements for students. Each university now has to sponsor each international student who wants to study with them leading to increased bureaucracy; they are also responsible for getting the Border Agency in to expel failed foreign students. There is the cost of the new visa, but the biggest problem is that even students who have got through all the hurdles are not getting their visas. Students from Sri Lanka have to travel to India to get a visa to the UK, those from Malaysia to the Philippines, where the embassy has admitted they are overloaded. Apparently the backlog is 20%, which by my calculation works out as at least £340 million lost to UK universities in fees this year. In addition, there will be lost custom in subsequent years as students opt for cheaper, more efficient rivals to the UK.

Of course, people will say all of this was necessary because people were coming and attending bogus language schools and in fact then working illegally in the UK. The purge of such bogus institutions has been very thorough and has closed down 124 across the UK. However, in the wave of anti-immigrant hysteria the UK is currently experiencing that was not seen as enough and students were caught up in the procedures really designed to limit the number of builders and waiters coming to the UK from outside the EU. As is typical of UK and US policy, legislation is rushed and then regretted at leisure. People might argue: 'well it is fine, university semesters do not begin until October', not realising that most international university students are compelled to attend pre-sessional courses over the Summer to prepare them to study. Those courses have been running, sometimes already for weeks, with many students missing. Ironically, many potential UK students have been turned away this year because of capping on recruitment. Even if these people were let in you would need three of them to replace every single international student, in terms of fees.

Just at the time when universities are struggling the anti-immigrant hysteria has meant they are being kicked while they are down. This will damage what has effectively become a distinct sector of the British service sector. The Border Agency could not have timed their new approach worse. In addition, as is typical in the UK, they totally under-estimated how involved the process was going to be and how many staff and resources it would use up. They knew how many international students came to the UK in an average year but did not bother to put a machinery in place that could cope with it. It seems that British policy is tearing itself in two directions: to promote international students coming and yet make is far harder than ever to do so. International students are keeping many UK universities afloat especially in the recession and I am sure this blunder will mean some closing or certainly contracting severely. Effectively we are handing this billion pound business to Germany, the Netherlands, USA, Australia, etc. on a plate. With such a fiasco at such a competitive time, the UK may never recapture its market share and thus the UK economy as a whole will suffer. I was told that Portsmouth reckons that simply visits by the parents of international students to the city brings it £26 million each year. I did not hear the figure for how much the students themselves will bring. Portsmouth will lose £5.2 million in missed parental visits this year and probably many millions more in international students who are not there.

I think the lesson of these two examples is, fine have visas, but make sure the operation of them is fit for purpose, otherwise you will be damaging your country's business and will give the income such visitors would have provided for you, right into the hands of your rivals. That is a bad move at any time but is a woeful approach in time of recession.

P.P. 09/10/2009: Interesting to read from the BBC that 5000 students from Pakistan have yet to receive their visas to take up their places at British universities and a further 9000 are awaiting the outcome of appeals against the refusal, not by universities, but by the Border Agency, to give them a visa to study in the UK. The government has said the delays are not the fault of moving the visa office for Pakistanis from Islamabad in Pakistan to Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates (2087 Km; 1297 miles from Islamabad; almost equivalent to having a visa office moved from London to Kiev (a distance of 2131 Km; 1323 miles). The time to process visas has been 60 days, four times the 15-day target and has not been helped by computer failure. Improvements mean that the target should be reached next month, but this is too late for students, who as foreigners, were expected to start vacation classes back in September to begin proper study this month. See:

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