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Several adjectives could be applied to the British government’s performance in handling visa applications from Hong Kong students this summer. My personal favourite is shambolic, but chaotic and shameful would also be strong contenders.
More than 1,000 students and their families were seriously inconvenienced and obliged to incur collectively hundreds of thousands of dollars in unnecessary expenditure. Some students were even in danger of losing their places in British educational institutions. Others will arrive late and miss part of their courses. One student was even told she would have to defer her postgraduate course by a year.
The time taken to process student visas suddenly rocketed from around two to three weeks to six weeks or more. Those who paid extra for a priority process, with a promised one-week turnaround, were only getting their visas after three weeks or longer. Air tickets, hotels and land transport bookings had to be cancelled, or rebooked with losses or extra fees. Those who delayed buying an air ticket until the situation was clarified were pushed into a more expensive booking period.
Students wait at the UK Visa Application Centre in Causeway Bay, on September 4. Nora Tam
The situation placed an extra psychological burden on everyone involved, at what is already an extremely stressful time. I know this from personal experience: my own daughter flies later this month to take up a place at an American university. Both parents will be escorting her in this major step in her young life, and the entire extended family plus a small army of childhood friends will be at the airport to see her off. Others are planning to meet us in Los Angeles. Imagine the logistics involved in this exercise concerning just one child. Now multiply it by more than a thousand.
The British pavilion at the International Education Expo, at the Convention and Exhibition Centre in Wan Chai, on July 9. Photo: Felix Wong
Explanations offered for the chaos were many and varied. Some blamed the reported move of the processing office from Manila to Sheffield. Others claimed greater use of electronic submissions instead of hard copies had resulted in photocopying problems. Whatever the reason, the result was a fiasco.
The response of the local government here was commendable. A hotline was opened, largely – one suspects – to facilitate the venting of displeasure, as the process is entirely a British one. The post office did its best to help speed things up by opening special counters for collection of passports once the visas had been issued and returned. And the unfortunate British consul, Andrew Heyn, was called in for a ritual – though no doubt very civilised – roasting.
We should try to find room in our prayers for poor Heyn, being obliged to apologisefor the incompetence of others. He made the best of the situation by offering to write personal letters of support in cases where students risked losing their place.
British consul general Andrew Heyn tried the make the best of a situation not of his making, by offering to write personal letters of support in cases where students risked losing their place. Photo: Xiaomei Chen
This recent imbroglio is just the latest in a long line of episodes with Hong Kong people getting the short end of the stick from the UK, in education and other areas. Old hands will remember the changes to the British nationality laws, which stripped Hong Kong British citizens of their right of abode in the UK.
When tuition fees for home and overseas students were differentiated, Hong Kong students found themselves in the latter category and forced to pay substantially more. This contrasted with Macau, where the Portuguese government offered everyone full EU passports on demand, which led to the odd position that a Macanese student could study in the UK and pay “home” student prices, whereas one from what was still technically a British colony was classified as “overseas” and had to pay around three times as much.
Hong Kong is home to what is probably the largest British consulate in the world, because it was sized to deal with the issuing and renewal of the British National (Overseas) passports to potentially 4 million or so BNO citizens here.
The building was rendered about three quarters empty after this responsibility was returned to the UK. How much easier it would have been to deal with the visa situation had these issues still been dealt with here.
All this and the vote for Brexit too. No wonder those of us long-term residents here who still retain affection for the old country feel aggrieved that some seem determined to turn Great Britain into Little England.
Mike Rowse is the CEO of Treloar Enterprises. firstname.lastname@example.org
This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as:
Visa delays just latest episode of UK failing city