Of all the factors that can influence international student enrolments – from a country’s perceived safety or beauty to an institution’s reputation – visa processing times can be one of the most frustrating and unpredictable for applying students and receiving institutions alike. At the least, visa delays can taint the excitement a student has about their study abroad decision or push back start dates; at the worst, they can prompt the student to change his/her mind about coming at all.
Many of the leading destination countries have had complaints about their visa processing times in the past few years, especially in cases where they have closed visa application centres (VACs) for cost control or “streamlining” reasons.
But there is evidence the governments of leading countries are understanding the deleterious effects of visa delays: for example, Canada has just allotted CDN $42 million to improving visa processing in its latest budget, and Australia is also working hard to improve its visa processing and framework.
Now, the big five – the US, Canada, the UK, Australia, and New Zealand – have opened the first-ever joint VAC in Singapore under the Five Country Conference (FCC) programme.
The FCC is a forum for cooperation between the five countries on migration and border security. The joint visa centre is run by VFS Global, a leading outsourcing and technology services specialist for diplomatic missions and governments across the world.
A spokesman for Australia’s Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC) said the Singapore-based VAC would “include extended operating hours with phones open until 5 pm weekdays, and Internet kiosks with an online application tracking facility so clients can view the status of their applications.”
He commented that clients in the region would receive more convenient access to immigration and citizenship services as a result.
The new five-country VAC in Singapore will be strictly an application centre – devoted to administration – rather than an assessment centre. Prospective students’ applications will be evaluated by the high commissions or immigration authorities in countries to which the students are applying.
The joint VAC seems likely to be the first of more joint centres to come, since under the FCC initiative, member countries have signed on to share a global network of VACs.
From a logistical standpoint, the five-country VAC makes a lot of sense: it promises to cut down on costs as well as better serving the client base of each country.
But it is interesting from another perspective: competitive advantage. Each of the five countries competes with the rest, and the competition for students is only getting tighter. Shortening visa processing times and reducing the general headache of visa applications for students is a source of competitive advantage; looked at from the other side, putting up visa or immigration barriers causes countries to lose out on students to other countries.
So that the five countries are collaborating – rather than competing – on the basis of better visa processes is notable.
That said, the VAC is but an application centre, not a guarantee of shorter wait times, and but one tiny chink in the overall immigration and international education strategies of each of the countries.
For now, the joint VAC is perhaps most important for its optics: it will likely serve the leading destination countries’ aim of assuring international students of a reasonable level of service and visa processing times, while providing each of the participating countries with some cost savings and administrative efficiencies along the way.