Previously, students were able to arrange document checks through their local post office at their convenience.
Despite efforts from the Home Office, UK Visas and Immigration [UKVI] and Universities UK, universities have continued to report the following issues with the service Sopra Steria is providing:
Applicants are unable to get an appointment for at least two weeks, sometimes longer
Applicants are 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
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
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*
Following complaints, Sopra Steria has recently decided to offer pop-up services at university campuses. However, these 15 minute appointments will be 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.
Anxiety around this issue continues to increase as universities are not far from 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 be inadequate, some may be unable to travel home for the Christmas holidays.
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."
*Khalid Elkhereiji, a student at the University of Southampton, said: "I use a screen reader which reads on-screen text aloud. Trying to login in to my UKVCAS account to book the appointment I needed for my visa was very frustrating as none of the screen readers I used were able to detect the checkbox which must be selected to confirm the person logging in is not a robot. I spent hours trying to do this, carefully repeating the same steps as it was not possible to identify the issue. This is not a problem that I face with other websites and it meant I was not able to login without the assistance of a sighted person.
"When I was able to login it was clear that there were no appointments at the nearest centre in Southampton. This issue was raised by the university and since then I have had an appointment in Southampton. 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. I have said that I am willing to test this for them to ensure that others do not have the same experience as I did."
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."
Universities UK is the collective voice of 136 universities in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Its mission is to create the conditions for UK universities to be the best in the world; maximising their positive impact locally, nationally and globally. Universities UK acts on behalf of universities, represented by their heads of institution. Visit: www.universitiesuk.ac.uk