Studying in the UK, the Tier 4 Saga – Part 1

Quite often, I get asked about the procedure of applying to study in the UK by non-EU friends who are considering doing the same, so here’s a post about that. First of all, bear in mind that it’s quite a long process, you’ll need to plan almost a year in advance, particularly if you’re thinking of trying for a scholarship too. I’m sure I’ve said this before, but back in 2006 when I applied for the first time to do my undergrad, the visa part was really quick – I posted all my documents to Rio on a Wednesday and got my passport with the visa back on the Saturday after that. The timeline of events was roughly the following:

  • February 2005 – began looking for drama courses in Scotland, found out about the (then) RSAMD, requested information pack
  • April 2005 – received prospectus, decided to apply even though the only option was Acting. Signed up for a video audition
  • June 2005 – sent application with shit DVD audition
  • August 2005 – got rejection letter
  • September 2005 – realised there were other courses and other universities to consider. Found about about UCAS (all by independent googling)
  • November 2005 – applied through UCAS to five universities: Queen Margaret University, University of Glasgow, Strathclyde University (all in Scotland), Aberystwyth University (Wales), and one in England that I can’t remember for the life of me
  • January 2006 – got unconditional offers from all 5 unis
  • February 2006 – after much deliberation between Aberystwyth and QMU, accepted the latter (big mistake, but that’s another story)
  • July 2006 – applied for visa, booked flights
  • August 2006 – moved to Edinburgh
  • September 2006 – started course

So you see, that spanned over a year, and this was when things were simpler with the Home Office and not taking scholarship applications into account.

Now, I’ll be honest with you – the way things are turning ugly in the UK with its increasingly xenophobic policies, I do not recommend studying there at present. I have told some Brazilian friends to consider other European countries instead, particularly because most of them are interested in postgraduate courses, and you can find find those taught in English across Europe. In addition, some countries (like Germany) offer free postgraduate courses, whereas in the UK you are looking at forking out around £15,000 per year as an international student, and considering they have banned things like the Post-Study Work Visa, it really isn’t worth it for newcomers. The only reason I insisted was because I had already had a life and a professional trajectory in the UK. If I were assessing the possibility now, I would choose elsewhere to go.

But let’s say you are as stubborn as I am and want to go ahead with this idea – here’s my latest timeline:

  • November 2014 – while on a tourist visa in Scotland, decided to do a postgraduate course. Attended an Open Day at Edinburgh University/Edinburgh College of Art. Didn’t like the options offered by either. Googled other universities, decided to get over my rejection trauma and write to the RSAMD, now RCS, again. Asked to meet with the Drama PhD coordinator.
  • January 2015 – applied for PhD at the RCS and MSc at Glasgow Uni (these applications were done directly to the respective institutions through their website, UCAS only handles undergraduate applications),went back to Brazil
  • February 2015 – received unconditional offer from Glasgow
  • March 2015 – invited to skype interview for the RCS
  • April 2015 – accepted offer from Glasgow just to be sure, had skype interview with PhD panel at the RCS
  • May 2015 – received unconditional offer from RCS and institutional research studentship, deferred offer from Glasgow
  • August 2015 – applied for Tier 4 Student Visa

Now here’s the catch. As you know if you have been following this blog, I couldn’t apply for the visa sooner as I desired, so this was already a bit tight. And unlike the glorious days of 2006 when everything was simpler, now the procedure is much longer and more twisted. So, after paying a deposit of £1,000, I was finally sent my Confirmation of Acceptance of Studies (CAS) by the RCS, halfway through August. You won’t receive this any sooner than 3 months prior to your course starts and then you have to use it within 6 months. I was obviously in a hurry, so I logged on to the UK visa application website as soon as I had it to fill out my lengthy application (seriously, I had to list ALL the countries I’ve visited for the past 10 years, with dates – thank fuck for saving my old passports and keeping track of bookings on gmail), pay for the visa application (USD 515.00), plus the new NHS health surcharge (USD 840.00). Once that was all done, I had to book my appointment to hand in the documents and attend an interview in Sao Paulo and book my flights (another R$ 870.00, plus money to spend on local transport and food in SP – thankfully, I have excellent friends there in whose couch I could crash). I sent the application on the 13th August and booked my interview for the 21st (so this stage alone took longer than my first visa application).

Like I said above, if you really want to do this, bear in mind that it is a long and rather expensive process. So much so that there are loads of businesses making a mint out of handling applications and selling guidance – the whole UK visa application thing has become quite a lucrative enterprise across many levels, considering you don’t even deal with the UK consulate anymore, it’s all done through a third party, which I’m sure is partially responsible for the added bureaucracy and hike in fees.

Scholarship-wise, most institutions will have some programme to offer (like mine), but you might want to consider your own country’s government (CAPES, in Brazil’s case, for example, which you are unlikely to get at PhD level without a track record of academic work done in Brazil) or the British Council’s Chevening programme (which applies to restricted fields of study and is only available for Masters level). Generally speaking, though, you will have to have been offered a place at your chosen university before applying for a scholarship, so plan accordingly.

I shall update you on how the rest of my application process went on another post, but I hope these tips have been helpful. There are loads of other websites with information on studying abroad, you just need to take some time to read through them and have a clear idea of what you want.

 

No place I’d rather be

Back in 2005, when I started planning my escape to Scotland, my first plan was to go to Glasgow and study at the (then) RSAMD. My first attempt was neutralised by a rejection letter after a terrible audition tape – bitter as it may sound, I didn’t fancy myself as an actor anyway and only applied to that because it was the only course I had knowledge of at the time. The good thing about being rejected was that it prompted me to expand my research to Edinburgh, which led me to a course that sounded more like what I was after (and turned out to be pretty shit, but that’s another story). I also found out I was allowed to apply to up to 6 courses through UCAS and spread my wings across Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberystwyth and somewhere in England that I can’t remember. Second time round, I get unconditional offers from all of them. I quickly dismissed most of those, giving myself a couple of weeks to decide between Aberystwyth and Queen Margaret University, and although the Welsh course sounded more convincing, I accepted QMU’s offer because of Edinburgh. I had never been to Edinburgh before in my life, I didn’t know anyone who had lived or been there, but I had a good feeling about this place. Also, I’d read about this Edinburgh Fringe Festival thing, “largest performing arts festival in the world”, and for someone wishing to pursue a career in theatre, it just sounded like it was the right place to be.

I arrived in Edinburgh for the first time on 31st August, 2006, just in time for the fireworks concert. I did not experience the Fringe until the following year, when I was invited to be stage crew for a couple of my lecturers’ show. I was there for the first 10 days of the festival only, as I had booked a trip to Brazil to attend a cousin’s wedding, but it was enough to give me a good taste of what the Fringe actually was and I promised to myself I’d be there for the whole thing next year. In 2008, I got a flyering job with a company producing mostly Irish comedy shows. That was the year I decided that, no matter where I were living or working, I absolutely HAD TO be in Edinburgh every August and enter this magic interdimensional portal that opens in the city every summer. Cue 5 consecutive years of mad parties, indulging in theatre from all over the world, A LOT of hard work and stress, fringe flings, ridiculous amounts of fun, the best show I’ve seen and been part of ever, very little or no sleep at all, and wonderful memories which will get re-told endlessly until the day I die. And then September 2012 came and, as you know if you have been following this blog or if you actually know me in real life, I was forced to leave the UK and was subsequently refused an Exceptional Talent visa to come back.

When the Fringe programme was out in 2013 and I was in Brazil, I had a huge breakdown. It was the first and only time in my life that I needed to be given tranquilisers. For a week, I felt I could do nothing but sit and watch TV, from early morning to bedtime. I avoided the internet for a few days, as I couldn’t bear my friends’ updates about the Fringe that year. Then, I realised there was nothing preventing me from just coming to visit as a tourist. My best friend from home would get married in Portugal in September that year, and I was one of her bridesmaids, so I’d be travelling to Europe anyway. May as well go a month earlier and experience the Fringe as a mere audience member for the first time (I wrote about that here), and that was actually quite nice. With re-invigorated stubbornness, I returned to Brazil after that, applied for the Exceptional Promise visa and was refused again, but I had such a great idea for a show. Determined to not back down, I started working on La Niña Barro with Eli, Alex, and Marta over skype and email and boom – we had a show in the 2014 Fringe. We had our problems with it, but it felt good to be back in the game.

Fast forward to the Fringe 2015. I wasn’t planning to put on a show of mine, but I offered my services to a couple of theatre companies I know and was very excited to be invited to work with both during their Edinburgh run. Only problem: the new student visa I was about to request would only be valid from 30 days before the start of my course, or the end of August. But I had a cunning plan. If I could get my new visa before August, I would travel to the UK and enter under a Visitor Entertainer stamp to work during the Fringe, then come September hop across the water to Spain/Portugal to check on my girls for a few days and return to the UK once the validity of the student visa started. I wrote to the Home Office asking if this would be acceptable, and they confirmed I would be ok to do that. Sorted. But this is me and nothing would be easy, right?

Right. So, due to a much more complex and unnecessarily roundabout system now, my student visa application was delayed (I will write about this part of the saga on another post), making me miss the Fringe for the first time in 9 years! I can’t even begin to tell you the level of rage and frustration I achieved when I realised this was happening. It wasn’t a sad meltdown like the one I had in 2013, it was an angry one this time. Although the companies I had committed to had been warned that this might happen, it was still embarrassing to have to tell them they couldn’t count on me to help with the run. This is what this immigration policy does, ultimately: it generates angst, frustration, shame, stress, self-doubt. If I hadn’t already received an offer and confirmation of a research studentship at the RCS, this would have been the point of throwing in the towel.

I felt the need to vent about this and wrote a long email that sat in my drafts folder for about a week, as I didn’t even know who to send it to. Eventually, I fired it in all sorts of directions: politicians, journalists, arts organisations, bloggers, education councils… I received two replies agreeing that yes, it was terrible. There, there. That was it. Powerlessness wins.

There is no definite conclusion to this post. I am writing this 8 months after the events and it still makes me bitter. I can only cling on to the ridiculous glimmer of hope and optimism that I don’t know why I still have deep inside that things will change for the better eventually.