Home Office 'rushed to penalise' students accused of cheating


The Home Office “rushed to penalise” international students accused of cheating in English language tests without checking the reliability of evidence, parliament’s spending watchdog has concluded.

The public accounts committee has compared the way the department treated more than 30,000 international students accused of breaking the rules of an official English language test to the Windrush scandal.

A report from MPs has concluded the Home Office responded with a “flawed reaction”, revoking visas before verifying evidence, which led to “injustice and hardship for many thousands of international students”.

About 2,500 students have been forcibly removed from the UK after being accused of cheating in the exam run by third parties on behalf of non-profit organisation the Educational Testing Service (ETS).

Another 7,200 left the country after being told they faced detention and removal if they stayed. Many have tried to prove their innocence in court: 12,500 appeals have been heard and at least 3,600 people have won their cases.

The report said: “It is entirely unacceptable that, despite now recognising that hundreds of people still maintain their innocence, the Home Office has not acted to put right the wrongs caused by its actions.

“As with the Windrush scandal, the Home Office has once again not done enough to identify the innocent and potentially vulnerable people who have been affected.”

The Home Office’s methods were a flawed response to a 2014 report by the BBC’s Panorama programme. Footage showed “organised cheating” in two English language test centres run by ETS. Voice recognition technology was used by ETS to detect who had cheated by having someone else sit their test. The US firm claimed that 97% of UK tests taken between 2011 and 2014 were suspicious.

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The Home Office investigated colleges, test centres and students, cancelling the visas of those it considered to have cheated in the Test of English for International Communication. However, a number of people have successfully contested the accusations, although thousands of others have been unable to afford to challenge the cancellation of their visas.

The report said the Home Office rushed to penalise students without establishing whether ETS was involved in fraud or if it had reliable evidence.

“The department has taken no action to proactively identify innocent people. Those who are affected by the department’s action against them can go through the courts to try to demonstrate their innocence. But this can have a substantial financial and personal cost for those involved.

“It is shameful that the department knows it could have acted against innocent people but has not established a clear mechanism for them to raise concerns,” the report said.

The report also criticised the department for having “insufficient recourse to claim compensation”.

“The system [that the Home Office] designed left it with limited means to seek compensation from ETS Global BV, securing just £1.6m in compensation for taxpayers, despite spending an estimated £21m to respond to the cheating,” MPs said.

A Home Office spokesperson said: “The 2014 investigation into the abuse of English language testing revealed systemic cheating which was indicative of significant organised fraud. The scale of the abuse is shown by the fact that 25 people who facilitated this fraud have received criminal convictions totalling over 70 years. The courts have consistently found that the evidence the Home Office had at the time was sufficient to take action.”

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Nazek Ramadan, director of the charity Migrant Voice, which works closely with many students accused of cheating, said the Home Office’s approach has ruined dozens of lives. “Working alongside many of the students affected, we have seen first hand the extreme hardship they face as a direct result of the Home Office’s deeply flawed reaction.”

Meg Hillier, the committee’s chair, said the Home Office’s flawed reaction to a systemic failure by a private company has led to real injustice.

“It is staggering that the Home Office thinks it is acceptable to have so little regard for the impact its actions might have on innocent people.”

She added the “minuscule sum” of compensation for taxpayers rubbed “salt into the wounds”.





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