Universities UK has publicly complained about Sopra Steria’s performance in running a visa application service, pointing to problems with the online process and biometric enrolment.
The universities’ association said the company, which has a contract with UK Visas and Immigration to provide front end services, has been unable to meet the demand for visa applications.
Among the problems identified are that applicants are struggling to use the online systems, and that the support line imposes a charge of £2.50 per minute.
Universities UK cited the case of Khalid Elkhereiji, a student at the University of Southampton, who uses a screen reader that reads on-screen text aloud. He said none of the readers he used were able to detect the checkbox to confirm the person logging in is not a robot, which made it a long, painful process. When he was able to log in there were no appointments at the nearest centre.
Elisa Calcagni, a PhD student at the University of Cambridge, said the online system provides a window for appointments of just two weeks and she could not find any free ones available. This led her to pay £100 to guarantee an appointment in good time.
These are accompanied by complaints over waiting times of at least two weeks for appointments, and a failure to arrange appointments for applicants who pay a premium charge.
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.”
In response, Sopra Steria issued a statement saying:“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.”