Another day, another company comes under fire for failing to deliver on a project funded by public finances. This time it’s Sopra Steria that is facing intense criticism from universities across the UK for providing an insufficient service for international students applying for a visa.
Universities UK - which represents over 130 higher education institutions - has said that Sopra Steria’s system is unable to meet demand, with students in some parts of the UK waiting 30 days to get an appointment.
Sopra Steria was awarded the contract to deliver a service for people applying for a work or study visa last year, in a deal thought to be worth over £90 million. The service aims to allow people to submit biometric information at a single appointment, with the option to upload digital files in advance.
At the time of the contract award, Sopra Steria hailed a “new model of public service delivery”, as well as “great customer experience” and a “tangible example of transformation at work”.
However, according to Universities UK, a number of issues have been reported with Sopra Steria’s service. These include:
Applicants unable to get an appointment for at least two weeks, sometimes longer
Applicants having problems accessing and processing information online. If they have issues with the online system, the support line is charged at £2.50 per minute
Some students are paying to fast track their appointments and are travelling to one of Sopra Steria’s centres, often many miles away from there they live
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
Accessibility issues with the service
Universities UK has said that effort has been made by the Home Office and UK Visa and Immigration to support Sopra Steria, but that issues persist.
Elisa Calcagni, a PhD student from Chile studying at the University of Cambridge, thought the service she received from Sopra Steria was very disappointing:
As a non-EEA national 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 selected 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.
The company has decided to offer pop-up services at university campuses, but these 15 minute appointments are being offered at a cost of £50, paid for by the student or university. This is on top of the cost students pay for their visas and does not account for the space and staff resources that universities will need to use to facilitate these appointments.
Universities UK is particularly concerned that the situation could worsen during the September “student surge” when in excess of 40,000 students will need to register their biometric details.
International students cannot travel when they have an outstanding visa application, meaning that if the service continues to fail students, some may not be able to travel home for the Christmas holidays.
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.
International students make a huge cultural and economic contribution to the UK. Sopra Steria should be helping to send a more welcoming message to international students, signalling that the UK is open to talented individuals from around the world, as is the case at our universities.
In response to a request from diginomica/government for comment on the problems, a Sopra Steria spokesperson 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.