Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Closing off Opportunities

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Closing off Opportunities

Article excerpt

Paul Wordsworth warns that the privatisation of visa applications is hampering academics' ability to collaborate internationally

As a citizen of the UK it was only towards the end of my undergraduate degree that I even considered the need for international visas as a potential hindrance to movement across the "global village". Even then, the gloss of an ornate page-sized permit was an exotic rite of passage, well worth £50 and a trip to an embassy.

Subsequently, when considering funding applications for humanities doctoral research, I boldly exercised my European rights and opted for a PhD fellowship in Denmark, without a second thought. In Copenhagen, I encountered several non-EU expat researchers, who, while having been granted unfettered access to the extraordinarily rich diversity of academic institutions in the Schengen Area, struggled to visit UK universities for important meetings and short courses.

One colleague wanted to attend a two-week PhD-level short course at a London university. I helped him follow the online guidelines. Having been redirected through a series of menus and a digital application form, he had encountered several unclear options in the dropdown menus. No further help was available, and the premium hotline of the local privatised visa centre was unable to give advice. More than two months later, the application was categorically refused. Although, again, no explanation could be elicited from the private company to which visa applications in Denmark have recently been outsourced, he presumed it was because he had selected the wrong dropdown option. No refund was offered and there was not enough time to reapply.

Three years later, I am part of a project at the University of Oxford, whose dual aim is research and network-capacity building in Afghanistan. In addition to our work with individuals in their own country, it was recently proposed that we invite several Afghan colleagues to Oxford for a workshop on some of the major project themes. Researching the necessary visa process for Afghan nationals, I was promptly redirected to another private company, Gerry's International, which acts as the regional processing centre, in Pakistan.

It eventually became apparent that not only would our visitors - some of whom are senior members of national institutions - be required to fly in person to the neighbouring country (which, of course, has its own visa restrictions) to apply and submit their biometric information, but that they would have to wait there for an unspecified amount of time, perhaps two weeks or more, to hear if they had been successful and collect the necessary paperwork. …

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