"Shockingly, the application fee for my boyfriend’s visa was £30, while mine was £174."Pixabay/Mohamed Hassan

Picture this: it’s September 18th, 2021. You’re a third-year languages student, and your (in-person) university course in Spain started five days ago. You began paying for your accommodation eighteen days ago, and you’re supposed to be spending your time learning, meeting people, and exploring a new city. Instead, you’re still in England, sitting on your bed, endlessly refreshing your emails with no idea as to what the next year might look like.

Over the past two and a half months, I’ve spent over nine hundred pounds desperately trying to obtain a visa from the Spanish consulate — to no avail. At every turn there’s been an unnecessary obstacle: the three weeks in which my emails were initially ignored; the unmanned telephone line which sent me round in circles; the disarray at the consulate itself; the general inconsistency regarding acceptable insurance; and the scrutiny of so many documents that other European consulates did not request — not to mention the financial demand of such documents. These endless expenses (for legalisations, an ACRO certificate, a medical certificate, extra insurance, translations, as well as the application fee itself) have put a significant dent into my savings. And still, no visa. I have even been in contact with my MP about these difficulties and delays, but his emails to the consulate on my behalf have also been ignored.

“The year abroad experience is something that every language student builds up to... instead, I am plagued by anxiety”

Another complication in my fruitless endeavour for a visa has been the discrepancies between the requirements of different European consulates. For example, my friends who applied for a French visa — although they also had stressful experiences — were not expected to gather any of the time-consuming and costly extra documents listed above. As well as this, their applications, in most cases, took no more than 2 weeks to process and, shockingly, the application fee for my boyfriend’s visa was £30, while mine was £174. Various articles from the BBC, the Guardian, and the Independent have specifically criticised the difficulties in acquiring a Spanish visa. So, whilst I am delighted to watch my friends thriving through Instagram stories of impressive landmarks and gorgeous pastries, I can’t help but feel dispirited when I look to the corner of my room and catch sight of my own untouched suitcase. The year abroad experience is something that every language student builds up to over years of study; it is an opportunity for cultural and linguistic immersion which should be a huge, exciting step. Instead, I am plagued by anxiety over my late arrival to the university and, worse still, an underlying dread that this could all have been for nothing — my visa application may ultimately be rejected.

“Not only does this threaten the opportunities of individual students; it also threatens the study and appreciation of different languages and cultures as a whole”

As devastating as this is on a personal level, the ambiguity of the process and the discrepancies between consulates indicate a much larger problem: the lasting uncertainty surrounding travel and movement policies in a post-Brexit Britain. Whilst Brexit has seldom stimulated clarity (a major tactic of the Leave campaign in 2016 was one of “cultivated ambiguity”), Boris Johnson’s approach towards student mobility (much like his regard for student welfare) has been erratic at best. Not only has visa uncertainty left many people stuck in limbo, but Johnson’s abandonment of the heavily praised EU Erasmus programme poses further problems. Erasmus championed a policy of reciprocity; British students studied abroad and, in exchange, international students came to UK universities. By contrast, the Turing scheme does not offer provisions for foreign students to study in the UK. This demonstrates a callous disregard for these students’ learning opportunities, and for the significance of cultural exchange. As well as this, critics worry that this breach of cooperation will cause international universities to introduce tuition fees for UK year-abroad students, which would significantly escalate costs. And objections to the scheme continue: Hillary Gyebi-Ababio has criticised the government for not “back[ing it] up…with the funding required to support disadvantaged students”, and Kate Green has said that the Conservative “rhetoric on the Turing Scheme does not live up to the reality”.


Mountain View

An unlikely year abroad

These changes have therefore left students, universities, governments, and consulates at odds, with repercussions which may cause irreparable damage. For example, while I am lucky to have been able to delve into my overdraft and receive family support to fund the extortionate visa costs, many lower income students may not have these safety nets. Thus, the year abroad is becoming increasingly inaccessible (both financially, and due to the sheer volume of meticulous paperwork that may be particularly challenging for those with learning difficulties such as dyslexia or ADHD). Not only does this threaten the opportunities of individual students; it also threatens the study and appreciation of different languages and cultures as a whole. Already, the recent rise in machine translators has led to a reduction in the number of students applying for modern language degrees. Now, these new obstructions endanger them further. It has truly been, as described by Nicola Sturgeon, “cultural vandalism” – a thoughtless fracturing of Britain’s connection to different cultures and linguistic variety.

Only two years ago, an EU arrangement awarded my friend and me free interrailing tickets to explore vast expanses of Europe. The contrast between this cultural embrace and today’s bureaucratic walls is shocking. I can only hope that the government will recognise the struggles experienced by both UK and foreign students this year, as well as the potential for this to deeply impact cultural diversity on a national level, and that they make some much-needed changes.