Outsourcer provides document checks and processes biometric information
Universities have claimed that international students applying for UK visas are “paying through the nose for [a] woefully inadequate” service being provided by outsourcer Sopra Steria.
Last year, the French-headquartered company won a £94m four-year contract to provide a “front-end service” for UK Visas and Immigration. The deal was designed to support the agency in implementing “a self-service, digital experience for all parts of the application process”.
UK Universities, the body representing universities across the UK, has claimed that Sopra Steria’s service has thus far been “unable to meet demand” for Tier 4 general student visas.
The organisation claims that applicants are waiting two weeks or longer to have their documents checked, and are also “having problems accessing and processing information online”. This, according to UK Universities, is causing additional expense for students who need to access expedited services or make calls to the outsourcer’s £2.50-a-minute support line.
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“Some students are paying to fast track their appointments and travelling to one of Sopra Steria’s centres, often many miles away from where they live,” the education body said. “Many who are paying between £100 and £200 for premium appointments still cannot get an appointment and some are refused a refund of the money they pay for the premium service.”
A rash of complaints has prompted the outsourcing firm to provide “pop-up services” to offer document checks on campus – but these cost £50 for a 15-minute appointment, according to UK Universities.
Sopra Steria has been urged to fix these issues as a matter of urgency – as the impending start of the new academic year will see an estimated 40,000 international students registering their biometric details in a short space of time.
Alistair Jarvis, chief executive of Universities UK, said: “Despite constructive engagement between the Home Office, UKVI and universities, the current capacity and level of service being offered by Sopra Steria remains unacceptable. Students and universities cannot be expected to pay to address Sopra Steria’s broken system. We are calling on Sopra Steria to fully address these concerns before the September surge of students so that students can start their courses with the visas they need.”
Before Sopra Steria took over the visa service contract, overseas students were able to arrange to have their documents checked “through their local post office at their convenience”, UK Universities said.
A spokesperson for the outsourcer said: “Sopra Steria is working closely with the Home Office, universities and higher education institutions across the UK to deliver the Tier 4 (general student visa) application service. This is tailored to each institution’s needs to provide greater student convenience and choice. We are focused on adapting the service to respond to areas of greatest demand and are increasing capacity where needed.”
The company – which also won a long-term contract from the Home Office to support passport applications back in in 2009 – posted revenue of more than €4bn (£3.66bn) in 2018. During the year it banked net profit of €125m.