To this we’ve come…

Young people want to travel, learn and contribute to society. But for anyone hoping to come to the UK to volunteer in a charity, a Kafkaesque labyrinth of incomprehensible bureaucracy awaits.

Imagine… your daughter has found an opportunity to travel abroad to spend a year volunteering in a community charity. She will learn great skills and build an interesting CV, learn another language and culture, make lifelong friends and make a positive contribution to society. The charity is small, so having a volunteer will make a huge difference to their work. Their client group, who are people with disabilities and other factors that prevent them from travelling, will get to meet someone from another country, another world. A local family will gain income by renting a room to the volunteer, and the wider community will be enriched by welcoming a young outsider. And it’s all fully funded through an official scheme, with accommodation, travel and insurance provided. Being on a low income yourself, you could never dream of paying for all this.

You know that your daughter will need a visa. It’s expensive – over £200. And there’s a risk – if for any reason the visa is refused, she’ll lose the £200 anyway. But you decide it’s worth finding this money, somehow. Why should she be refused? She is not a criminal, and has no intention of staying on when her volunteering year ends.

In order to apply for her visa, your daughter must provide a certified copy of her entire passport (yes, entire, including the front and back covers), signed and stamped letters from several different organisations, copies of agreements, detailed descriptions of the duties she will undertake, the precise place of work, residential address and so on. On arrival for her placement, the host charity is obliged to report to the authorities. If she leaves their location for any reason, they will have to report. If she wants to go home for a Christmas break – well, that is not allowed. The visa permits only a single entry.

After all this, you find out that she will also be charged over £600 for a “health surcharge” in case she should need medical treatment while abroad – despite having insurance cover. You have no idea where to find this money. But that’s not the end of it: the immigration authorities also demand that she should prove that she has over £1,200 in her bank account – not a one-off payment, but regularly, over a period of several months. This is way beyond your family’s means. With bitter tears, your daughter tells the friendly people in the charity that she can’t afford to come.

Where and in what era is this hostile country? The Soviet Union in the 1950s? North Korea? The Central African Empire under Bokassa? No. This is the United Kingdom – “our” United Kingdom as politicians love to call it – today, in the 21st century. But it gets worse, so if you can bear to, read on.

New immigration rules mean that young people coming from the EU to the UK to study, volunteer or undertake (unpaid) work placements now require visas. This change was a ghastly shock to everyone working in the international education field. Until this year, after offering a volunteering placement, one could expect a young person to be on a plane to the UK within a fortnight. Now you are looking at 4-6 months – if you are lucky.

Nevertheless, for young people funded by official programmes such as the European Solidarity Corps (ESC) or Erasmus Plus, a “Tier 5” visa is available, on condition that they can show a Certificate of Sponsorship (CoS) from the host organisation in this country. One might imagine that a Tier 5 visa would be more straightforward to obtain than a regular one; and given that many charities are small and lack the capacity to register as “sponsors” themselves, news that the British Council, which is the National Agency for these programmes and is rated as an “A-grade sponsor” by the Home Office, could provide the CoS came as some relief.In practice the system is a disaster. To begin with, the British Council provided no information at all. Eventually, guidelines were published on their website, but no information was sent proactively to organisations, and no training has been offered, even online. Every organisation has been left to make sense of the rules by themselves.

A nightmarish game of snakes and ladders

Small organisations desperately need help navigating the new system so as to keep their volunteering projects, and the hopes of young people, alive. The Centre for International Learning and Leadership (CILL) has been trying to help them – not because we have any official role, but because there is no support from those who do. To understand the depth of the problem and the baleful apathy of the people responsible, you have to look at some of the detail.

  1. The information provided on the National Agency website appears to be systematic but is difficult to follow in practice. Furthermore, changes to requirements have been made without notice or advice being sent out to organisations, meaning that they may complete a lengthy process of gathering documentation only to find that the rules have changed and they are sent back to square one. It feels like a nightmarish game of snakes and ladders.
  2. Information and advice are given selectively and indeed secretively to different organisations. Some have actually been asked not to pass on information to each other.
  3. The National Agency staff dealing with these matters lack knowledge and experience. Some appear to be new recruits. Tasks are allocated to the most junior level, without a corresponding delegation of authority. If their manager is on leave, even the simplest action is put on hold. No one is able to exercise common sense or reasonable professional judgement. Many of these staff are unaware of the most basic operation of the ESC programme, for example leading them repeatedly to insist on provision of “grant agreements between the National Agency and the Sending Organisation” – a form of document which simply does not exist.
  4. There is no sharing of information between the unit responsible for the official programmes and the Tier 5 staff. So beneficiary organisations are being asked to provide documents and information which the National Agency already possesses (having authorised the projects in the first place), which is hugely inefficient.
  5. One small charity, trying to complete the placement of 5 volunteers under a single project, has had to communicate with a different member of staff for each of these volunteers, requiring repetition of information and a great deal of nugatory work.
  6. In relation to the same project, these 5 National Agency staff members have communicated directly and separately with the 5 prospective volunteers. This is not only inefficient but also highly inappropriate: it causes extreme anxiety to young people who are already scared by the visa process and now feel threatened by demands from an unknown person for documents which they do not have access to (e.g. project grant agreements). Their English in any case may not be sufficient to understand the nuances of the communication.
  7. Having prepared and submitted all the necessary documents according to the original published rules, the charity was then unexpectedly informed that additional documents were required – leading to a further month’s delay and one volunteer deciding to drop out.
  8. They were then told that the project start date on all documents must be amended to 11 weeks in the future, rather than the original 8 weeks. This meant that the entire process had to be started again. Given that this could itself take an indeterminate time (at least 2 weeks), would even the new start date remain valid?
  9. Late in the process, the charity was told that each volunteer’s passport must be valid for a minimum of six months from the end of the year’s placement. One of the volunteers has a passport that would expire after 5 months (16 months from now). Should they (can they, even) apply for a new passport so far in advance? And if so, how much more delay will this cause to their placement, given that they will have to start the whole process again from scratch? And here is an added gall: the passport validity would have been fine, if the project hadn’t been delayed by the bureaucracy in the first place.
  10. Meanwhile these seemingly infinite delays have undermined the entire project plan. How processing the Certificate of Sponsorship can take 8 weeks, let alone 11 weeks (given that these are already approved projects under an official educational programme), is impossible to imagine, and no explanation, plausible or otherwise, has been offered. It is bureaucracy gone mad.
  11. ESC volunteers are typically those “with fewer opportunities”, as explicitly encouraged by the programme. The visa fees and NHS surcharge now required are far beyond their means. These costs were not included in any grant applications because the new immigration rules had not been introduced or even intimated at that time. Yet the British Council has issued no advice to hosting organisations on whether their grants can be used to cover these exorbitant costs, or how the relevant payment should be made to volunteers.
  12. No technical guidance has been given on how to complete a visa application if and when a CoS has been issued. The online process is confusing, even down to what sub-category of application should be made.
  13. Similarly, the British Council has publicly stated that Tier 5 visa applicants will not need to prove they hold over £1,200 in their personal bank accounts – but official visa information indicates that they do. If so, this would be simply impossible for most ESC volunteers. No one knows who to believe or what to advise young people.

Leadership, empathy and service

The extreme bureaucracy of the British Council and their National Agency partner Ecorys UK is legendary among organisations involved in ESC or Erasmus Plus. Most have long since submitted to it, knowing that any complaints will be stonewalled with a universal “we don’t make the rules, Guv” response. But the CoS process has reached new levels and created an extraordinary amount of additional stress. One member of staff recently described it as by far their worst experience in a 30 year career. This is a tipping point at which we must finally say “enough”.

The British Council will probably say that they have no influence over Home Office immigration policies. While in a technical sense this may be true, the fact remains that at the most senior level they could undoubtedly do more to alleviate the effects of these policies by making the case for the official programmes that they manage – and by taking a moral stand for the rights of young people. It is also their duty to help UK organisations to manage the new visa processes as painlessly as possible, by making their own procedures as seamless, efficient and humane as they can, and by providing leadership. As things stand, precisely the opposite is happening. The British Council has many years’ experience in issuing Tier 5 certificates. Why are they not building on this and offering an improved customer service?

I am being honest, I am currently not doing very well and struggling with my mental health. Don´t get me wrong, I am still motivated and looking forward … it’s just this uncertain situation with all the bureaucracy that is kind of getting me down. — An ESC approved volunteer (after 3 months trying to get a Tier 5 visa), November 2021.

Ultimately it is young people themselves who are suffering. A cynic might say that the Tier 5 process has been deliberately made as convoluted as possible, in the hope that they will not come to the UK, or that small organisations will decide the difficulties are not worth the candle, and cancel their projects. This is already happening.

Like it or not, the UK is still an ESC and Erasmus Plus Programme Country for projects funded under the 2014-2020 programme. This means there is an obligation to enable the successful implementation of these projects. But the British Council and Ecorys UK have washed their hands of all but the most basic functions, shedding staff, reducing customer care to zero and limiting public communication mostly to chirpy little messages about the new (and widely reviled) Turing programme.

Ecorys is a private company, so one presumes it is interested only in fulfilling the commercial and technical obligations of its contract as the National Agency. The British Council on the other hand is one of our prized cultural institutions: it is supposed to care about improving cultural and educational relations with other countries, including the mobility and intercultural learning of young people. The education and youth sector has long been one where the British Council has enjoyed a higher than average level of recognition and, generally, a positive reputation. Sad to say, this is no longer the case. A change in culture is required, from weak leadership and bureaucratic enforcement to people-centred engagement, empathy and service.

The day will come

In Menotti’s opera The Consul, a desperate young woman in an unnamed totalitarian state is trapped “in endless waiting rooms” as she tries to get a visa to escape to an unnamed western one. In what is surely one of the greatest arias in all opera, she addresses the petty bureaucratic consular secretary:

“To this we’ve come, that men withhold the world from men. No ship nor shore for him who drowns at sea. No home nor grave for him who dies on land… If to men, not God, we now must pray, tell me… tell me who are these men? Who are these dark archangels? Will they be conquered? Will they be doomed? Is there anyone behind those doors to whom the heart can still be explained? Is there anyone who still may care?… Oh, the day will come, I know, when our hearts aflame will burn your paper chains. That day neither ink nor seal shall cage our souls. That day will come!

That opera does not have a happy ending. But ours still might: all we need is kindness. We owe it to every young person, to sing aloud for them: “that day will come”.


You can support the national campaign for a Youth Visa by signing the petition at https://bit.ly/youthvisa

This article may be freely quoted, copied and shared (with acknowledgement please). It is based on an open letter to the Chief Executive of the British Council and the Managing Director of Ecorys UK. The letter has been widely shared with professionals and organisations around the UK. Here are a few of the responses received so far:

I completely agree with everything you have written.  It is a shambles, with nobody taking responsibility and many people, especially smaller organisations and their volunteers floundering.

We’ve all been so overwhelmed with the visa struggles that it has overshadowed the other massive issues with the National Agency shortcomings, and especially with the fundamental approach and attitude of Ecorys.

It is a disaster and will put back [the UK’s] reputation in learning & development for years to come.  It has felt like “blowing in the wind” – no-one appreciating or recognising the harm they are doing.

The new visa rules are proving such an impediment to all categories of educational, cultural and youth travel.

The feeling of helplessness has been with me now for years as I see a steady decline in the formation of any strategy.

There’s a reason why I stopped applying to host programmes…. very simply it was the National Agency.

The British Council is a national disgrace.

A brilliant critique of the nightmare wejhave all been facing – for no reason other than incompetence and mismanagement.

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