International students and staff at British universities are facing “unacceptable” difficulties and costs in applying for visas, after parts of the application process were outsourced to a company charging up to £200 for appointments.

Universities say that the system, run by the French IT services company Sopra Steria, is already struggling to cope with the numbers renewing their student visas within the UK, and fear that it will be chaotic in September when more than 40,000 students are expected to use it.

“Despite constructive engagement between the Home Office, UK Visas and Immigration and universities, the current capacity and level of service being offered by Sopra Steria remains unacceptable,” said Alistair Jarvis, the chief executive of Universities UK.

“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.”

Until March applicants were able to use a service provided through post offices to check documents and provide biometric information such as photographs. But since then they must book appointments through six Sopra Steria-run centres around the UK or pay extra for appointments in other cities.

Universities UK, which represents more than 130 British higher education institutions, has received a stream of complaints about Sopra Steria from its members, and from students unable to book free appointments required to scan documents and take fingerprints.

Sopra Steria offers “enhanced” appointments at its main offices for extra fees, including next-day or emergency appointments from £100 to £200. Appointments can be made online, or through the company’s phone line which costs £2.50 a minute. The company’s website also offers appointments at a “premium lounge” in the City of London starting at £200, “for customers who desire a service with added comfort and privacy”.

Those costs are on top of the £475 that international students typically pay for a tier 4 visa application, and £300 a year surcharge for use of the NHS.

Elisa Calcagni, a student from Chile studying for a doctorate at the University of Cambridge, said: “I was required to enrol my biometrics through Sopra Steria. I had not expected any additional charges but I found it virtually impossible to find a free appointment.

“The time window for bookings on the online system only covers two weeks and there were no free appointments available, or any appointments at all in Cambridge. I called the Sopra Steria support line and they suggested to keep checking the website for cancelled appointments.

“I didn’t want the uncertainty of constantly checking the system with no guarantee of an appointment becoming available, so I elected to pay £100 for an 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.”

Free appointments are said to be between 10am and 4pm at the company’s core centres, in Birmingham, Belfast, Cardiff, Croydon in south London, Glasgow and Manchester. In some other cities “enhanced service points” offer appointments for £60 to £125, in many cases located in public libraries.

“As a result, 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,” Universities UK said.

Diane Abbott, the shadow home secretary, said the “shoddy” service was the wrong way to treat students making significant educational and financial contributions to the UK.

“While other countries are falling over themselves to attract international students, this Tory government continues to subject them to a hostile environment,” Abbott said.

“Sopra Steria are yet another private contractor, like G4S and Serco, given millions in public funds by the Home Office, and providing a shoddy service.”

A spokesperson for the company said: “Sopra Steria is working closely with the Home Office, universities and higher education institutions across the UK to deliver the tier 4 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.”

Other students have also said they couldn’t access online appointments administered by Sopra Steria. Khalid Elkhereiji, a student at the University of Southampton who uses a screen reader to read onscreen text aloud, said it could not deal with parts of the online application.

“This is not a problem that I face with other websites and it meant I was not able to log in without the assistance of a sighted person,” Elkhereiji said.

“I have explained my concerns with the accessibility of the service to Sopra Steria and I believe it is a relatively simple issue to fix. However, I have not had any further updates from Sopra Steria and there has been no confirmation that their website is inclusive and accessible to everyone.”

After eventually logging on Elkhereiji found there were no appointments available in Southampton, and obtained one only after his university intervened.

In 2017 Sopra Steria came under fire for its involvement in NHS Shared Business Services (SBS), a venture it co-owned with the Department of Health, after the Guardian revealed that more than 500,000 pieces of sensitive medical correspondence handled by SBS had gone missing.


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