Education

US sector reacts to visa interview waivers and travel reopening

On September 14, the US announced student visa applicants who were previously issued any type of visa, were never refused a visa and have no apparent ineligibility could be eligible to forgo visa interview requirements.

Additionally, first-time US visa applicants from countries participating in the Visa Waiver Program could be eligible to miss interviews, at the discretion of consular officers.

The US has since said fully vaccinated travellers – including from the UK and EU – will be permitted to fly to the country from early November.

Although students on F-1 or certain J-1 visas have been eligible to travel to the US under a National Interest Exemption, a visa backlog has been issue highlighted by a campaign led by a senator in California.

On the interview waiver, assistant director of international admissions at the University of Maine, Andrius Ksikvas said he is “cautiously optimistic”.

“The reality is that many consulates do not choose to waive the interviews”

“As one of my colleagues noted in our interoffice group chat discussing this announcement – this is a positive step in the right direction, however, it is important to keep in mind that although individual US consulates now have the ability to waive the visa interview ‘if they so choose’, the reality is that many consulates do not choose to waive the interviews,” he indicated.

“Hence we are continuing to advise our admitted international students to check with the US consulate in their respective countries for the latest updates and conditions.”

The University at Buffalo experienced a record number of incoming new and overall enrolled international students for fall 2021, assistant dean and chief enrollment officer for graduate education in the institution’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, Chris Conner, noted.

“[While entry increased this year] well beyond our fall 2019, pre-Covid-19 levels, there were over 400 students who were still unable to even schedule student visa appointments due to significant backlog and high demand for slots,” he said.

“Waiving of the interview process should help students and scholars from certain countries but these are not our typical high volume sending countries which means the backlog is likely significantly less (as is the impact) than in our primary markets such as India or China,” he warned.

“Given backlogs and varied levels of Covid risks around the world the discretion given to individual consulates makes perfect sense,” stated SDSU Global Campus’s assistant dean of international strategy and programs, Eddie West, adding that the move is “another step in a helpful direction”.

“The in-person interview has always been fraught with subjectivity”

“For that matter, the in-person interview has always been fraught with subjectivity; legitimate students whose nervousness gets the better of them during that make or break few minutes are often denied their visas because consular officers question their motives. Consular posts being authorised to waive that requirement as they see fit is a net good in that regard as well.”

The American Council on Education, as well as leaders of 17 New York State institutions, has previously called for in-person interviews to be waived in response to Covid-19.

“We are very happy that the state department continues to identify and support flexibilities for our student visa applicants during Covid-19 and to help address the backlog,”Sarah Spreitzer, director, government relations at the ACE said of the latest visa interview waiver announcement.

“While this doesn’t impact all our student visa applicants, we think this action will be helpful to the state department in moving through the backlog.”

In 2020, NAFSA also called for video conferencing to replace in-person visa appointments in response to the pandemic.

“The announcement by the US state department last week that allows consulates to extend interview waivers for a broader group of F, M, and academic J visa applicants along with this week’s announcement by the White House that Covid-related travel restrictions affecting 33 countries will be lifted in November are both welcome news,” Rachel Banks, senior director of public policy & legislative strategy at NAFSA, noted.

“We continue to press for further improvements to visa processing, such as the expansion of interview waivers, to clear out existing backlogs and address the volume of new applicants as worldwide travel continues to rebound,” Banks added.

“The opening of travel to the US from the EU and UK is a much needed and positive step as it will eliminate obstacles to our internationalisation efforts such as in-person research and scholarly collaborations,” Conner at the University at Buffalo noted.

While the travel news from the UK and EU is welcome, the short-term “Semester at SDSU” program in San Diego recently welcomed 350 new students, “the overwhelming majority of whom are from Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Italy and elsewhere in the EU”, West added.

At the University of Maine, Ksikvas hopes the announcement “reinvigorates our study abroad programs, both inbound and outbound”.

“We have a good number of active university exchange partnerships with institutions all over EU and UK and most of UMaine students are interested in these programs.”

ACE continues to closely monitor the Biden administration’s relaxing of travel restrictions for vaccinated travellers, Spreitzer continued.

“This is welcome news for our faculty and staff who may be looking to travel to visit families or carry out research in other countries.”

While the NIE permits some students to travel to the US already, a concern of the new policy is that vaccines are still not widely available in many parts of the world.

“This new policy may cause issues for students traveling from countries where the vaccine is not widely available”

“Students traveling from a country without access to the vaccine are being offered the vaccine when they arrive at their US campus. This new policy may cause issues for students traveling from countries where the vaccine is not widely available, and therefore cannot present proof of vaccination.

“Our institutions of higher education are actively working to vaccinate their campus communities, so we hope this new policy will allow for flexibilities for students who may not be able to receive the vaccine in their home country, but will be able to be vaccinated quickly at their US institution.”

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