Hundreds of undergraduates taking modern foreign language courses may miss out on a vital part of their degree. Photograph: Nick Riddle/University of Bristol/Flickr
Thousands of British students have been hit by post-Brexit visa hurdles, leaving many struggling to complete their language courses or take up internships in the EU.
While some have delayed studying abroad or even switched continents because of visa delays, hundreds of undergraduates taking modern foreign language courses may miss out on a vital part of their degree.
In the most extreme case, the UK government has asked Spain to set up a fast-track visa process for British students wanting to study and work there after the Spanish embassy in London was overwhelmed by applications.
This month the UK Foreign Office contacted its Spanish counterparts, on behalf of UK universities, over the difficulties British students faced to get visas – the first time they have been required since Brexit ended freedom of movement for UK citizens last year.
But Spanish officials have so far rebuffed the request for a fast-track process, saying students should check they have the right documents to avoid hold-ups and suggesting universities could centralise visa applications and submit them en masse.
Natasha Kerr, a modern languages student at Bristol, is waiting to hear if her application for a visa has been successful after filling in forms and obtaining the correct documents followed by a long wait for an interview at the Spanish consulate in London.
“There was a lot [to] figure out. Bristol said: ‘We can’t give you advice, we don’t know,’” Kerr said. “There was a lot of miscommunication and the university reached out to the consulate but they didn’t get any response and there wasn’t a lot they could do.”
Kerr said the total cost of applying for a visa was about £700, which included getting two documents legalised and translated and obtaining an Acro (criminal records) police certificate. “It was a lot more than I was expecting,” she said.
While students have reported bureaucratic obstacles in applying for visas to Germany, Belgium, Netherlands and France, most of the complaints involve Spain.
James Illingworth, a coordinator for the University Council of Modern Languages, said university administrators were struggling to support their students with the “seemingly never-ending requirements” for Spanish visas. As a result, he said, some students had transferred their placements to Latin American countries where they had been able to receive visas more quickly.
“Whether students are granted a visa or not seems at the moment to be somewhat random, with students going on similar placements granted visas, while their friends are not. The extensive waiting lists and difficulties obtaining documents from host departments in Spain is causing significant delays and anxiety for students,” Illingworth said.
One plan under discussion would enable students to take up places in September after entering Spain on a tourist visa and then apply for a student visa after arriving.
A spokeswoman for Spain’s ministry of foreign affairs said this would not be possible, however, and that UK students would need to complete the same visa process as all other non-EU students.
She added that student visas were a priority for Spain but that most applications had arrived later than the embassy recommended, which is six months in advance of departure. The consulate in London also struggled with no-shows for appointments from British students, and incomplete and error-strewn applications, she said.
“This is the first academic year that student visas are needed after Brexit,” she added. “Therefore, British students and universities need to get used to the new regulation and the necessity of applying for a visa, and some adaptation time is still needed.”
Emma Cayley, chair of the University Council of Modern Languages and a professor at Leeds University, said the post-Brexit chaos has driven languages departments to lobby the government to negotiate visa exemptions for students studying or working in the EU as a compulsory part of their course.
As well as removing red tape, this would waive the high financial requirements for students in some countries: those applying to Germany must show €800 (£686) for each month they plan to stay. “[At present] it looks a bit like either ‘Bank of Mummy and Daddy’ or no travel,” said Cayley. “It may make the year abroad less viable as a result and worsen the recruitment issues already faced by many of our [university] members.”
Dan Howard, a third year student taking Italian and Spanish at the University of Reading, planned to study for one semester in Italy and one in Spain this year. But bureaucratic obstacles mean he will only be able to complete the Italian leg, and he relies on his university waiving his requirement to study in Spain.
“Initially, it felt as though my university had been left in the dark about what would be needed,” said Howard. Because students need to apply from their home countries, being in Italy makes it impossible for Howard to apply for the Spanish portion.
A UK government spokesperson said: “We have raised the issue with the Spanish government, and are supporting Universities UK International.”
This article was amended on 2 September 2021 to include an additional statement from a Spanish foreign ministry spokeswoman that was provided after publication.