By Evie Andreou
PRIVATE HIGHER education institutions are demanding faster procedures to process student visas to third country nationals, saying Cyprus is losing the chance of becoming a regional education centre.
DISY MP Kyriacos Hadjiyiannis told the House education committee earlier this week that the government needed a strategic plan.
When university tuition fees, accommodation, food and transportation are taken into account, students spend twenty times more money than tourists, Hadjiyiannis said.
“A student contributes to the whole economy of a country, in comparison to tourists who spend mainly in tourist establishments,” he said.
He argued that the rapid increase of foreign students in the north is pushing the government controlled areas out of the regional education map.
“In contrast to the Republic, where bureaucracy and the lack of policies have stagnated the arrival of foreign students, we observe that the occupied areas have started to evolve into an education centre,” Hadjiyiannis said.
In the north they have understood the importance of the education sector and have implemented effective policies, he said.
Among the 72,000 students that attend colleges in the north, 27,000 are from Turkey and 18,000 from 127 other countries, bringing in US $1billion in 2014 alone.
He added that the breakaway regime has increased its numbers of foreign students by 335 per cent and that they aim to raise the number to 100,000 students this year.
After Cyprus joined the EU in 2004, the government tightened regulations on student visas for third country nationals because of the high numbers of those entering Cyprus to study, only to abandon their studies and to either remain in the country and work illegally or seek political asylum.
The interior ministry’s regulations required students coming from Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, China and Sri Lanka to acquire a visa from the Cyprus consul in their country of residence following an interview with a unit of policemen sent from Cyprus to the country.
Following a cabinet’s decision last July, these procedures have been simplified, a move which has been welcomed by the association of tertiary education institutions (PASISTE) that represents private colleges.
Its chairman Demetris Christophorou told the Sunday Mail that interviewers at consulates were not trained for the job and that they were dropping student visa applications for trivial reasons.
He also gave the example of students from African countries where there are no Cyprus consulates who had to travel to the Cypriot consulate in Egypt to apply for visas.
Under the new regulations, when a prospective student from a third country applies to a school, if the school decides that they fulfil admission criteria, students have to present the documents to be certified at their nearest Cypriot embassy or consulate.
The certified documents are sent to Cyprus to the interior ministry which reviews the documents and sends the ones concerning academic criteria on to the education ministry.
Following July’s Cabinet decision, applicants must achieve a minimum of 50 per cent in their school-leaving English language exam, or 50 per cent general pass-mark on their school-leaving certificate and at least a 5 on an IELTS certificate.
If the ministry gives the green light, they inform the interior ministry, which has the final say. If they grant the applicant a student visa, then he or she is notified that they can proceed with registration and make arrangements to travel to Cyprus.
Despina Martidou, director of higher and tertiary education at the ministry of education, said that the new regulations have helped as applicants no longer have to travel to Cypriot embassies or consulates for interviews.
But private colleges, while welcoming the changes, point out that students still need to travel to the nearest Cypriot embassy to have their documents verified.
“It is not easy since we don’t have consulates in every country or every city,” said George Kazantzis, head of admissions at Frederick University in Nicosia.
He said that even the new procedures concerning third country nationals that wish to study in Cyprus are too demanding and time consuming. Students considering a higher education degree in Cyprus are discouraged by the processes and find alternative destinations, he said.
“Let’s face it; it is highly unlikely that students from all over the world dream of studying in Cyprus, so even those that decide to choose the island for their studies, which might not be their first choice, when they encounter these difficulties they turn elsewhere,” Kazantzis said.
Only between 1 and 1.5per cent of Frederick University students are from third countries, Kazantzis said.
“It is not a negative thing to control who enters the island but with this complete control, it makes things more difficult for those that truly wish to study here,” Kazantzis said.
He said that the government should control the private universities and colleges to see which institutions register students only on paper.
According to the data of the statistical service, foreign student numbers steadily increased despite the tougher regulations introduced after 2004, although not as much as the private colleges would have liked. From around 2,000 in 1999-2000, the number rose to more than 11,000 in 2009-10, and then it started to slowly decrease.
The latest data available are for the 2012-13 academic year show that of the 31,965 students attending the government controlled area’s higher institutions, 8,375 were foreign students – 4,600 from EU countries and 3,775 from third countries.
“The reduction in numbers was due to the economic crisis, but it seems that the new regulations have started to show improvements in the numbers of applicants from abroad,” Martidou said.
The House education committee hear that this year 850 applications have been filed for the spring semester from third country nationals, compared to the 315 of the equivalent period last year.
“With the limited budget we have in our disposal, due to the economic crisis, we have taken several steps to promote our private universities and colleges abroad,” Martidou said.
She said that the ministry organises educational fairs and information days in various countries in Europe, Asia and the Middle East.
“The last few years, our annual info days in Greece have helped attract many Greek students,” she said.
The education ministry is also signing mutual recognition agreements of higher education with other states and memorandums of understandings in the fields of higher education and research.
Martidou said that a bill is also being prepared that will enable state universities to offer some courses in English to attract more foreign students.