Road To Hell

There are several adjectives that 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.

At last report, more than 1000 students and their families had been seriously inconvenienced and obliged to incur collectively hundreds of thousands of dollars in unnecessary expenditure. Some of the students were even in danger of losing their places in UK education institutions. Others will inevitably arrive late and miss part of their courses. One student was even told she would have to defer her post graduate course by a year.

The time taken to process education visas suddenly rocketed from around two to three weeks to six weeks or more. People who paid extra for a priority visa process with a promised one week turnaround were only getting their visas after three weeks or longer. As a result, air tickets, hotels and land transport bookings were suddenly rendered useless and had to be cancelled or rebooked with outright losses or extra fees. Others delayed buying an air ticket until the visa situation had been clarified which pushed them into a more expensive booking period.

The situation also 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 will fly 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 is planning to 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 one thousand.

Explanations offered for the chaos were many and varied. Some blamed the reported move of the processing office from a centre in Manila, which had previously been responsible, to one in Sheffield in the north of England. Imagine that: British workers less well organised and efficient than Filipino ones; not an assessment one hears often, especially in connection with what is after all a British procedure. Others claimed greater use of electronic submissions instead of hard copies resulted in photocopying problems. Whatever the actual reason – another report denied the Manila/Sheffield move had happened – the result was undeniably a fiasco.

The response of the local government here was commendable. A hotline was opened, largely one suspects to provide an outlet for venting 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 all try to find room in our prayers for poor Andy, being obliged to apologise for the incompetence of others. He made 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.

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 sharply with the situation in nearby Macao where the Portuguese government offered everyone full EU passports on demand, which led to the odd position that a Macanese student could study in 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 issue and renewal of the very much second class British National (Overseas) Passports to potentially four 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.