Almost 34,000 students were accused of cheating in an English language test in 2015, and with no proper right to challenge the decision, told their studies had been terminated and that they had no right to stay in the UK. Home Office officials have accepted that “significant mistakes and misjudgements” were made in relation to foreign students wrongly accused of cheating in English language tests.
The hearing by the Commons public accounts committee is the latest in a series of official attempts to investigate why the Home Office decided to detain thousands of international students of cheating in an English language test they were required to sit as part of their visa application process.
About 2,500 students have been forcibly removed from the UK after being accused of cheating in the exam. Another 7,200 left the country after being told they have to face detention and removal if they stayed. Many have tried to prove their innocence in court: 12,500 appeals have been heard and so far 3,600 people have won their cases with hundreds of them still fighting the battle. Some were detained in removal centres, lost their jobs and were left homeless as a result, even though they were in the UK legally. Others remained and tried to clear their names, fearing their reputations at home would be destroyed and they would be barred from jobs.
Sir Philip Rutnam, permanent secretary for the Home Office, has now admitted “real concern” that “hundreds of innocent individuals, possibly more” are continuing to maintain their innocence after being erroneously caught in an operation. He told the Public Accounts Committee that the Home Office was “paying close attention” to the issue and that Sajid Javid, the home secretary, was expected to make a statement on the issue almost two months after he pledged to do so.
Asked by Labour MP Shabana Mahmood whether the department had been aware of the risk that people could be wrongly accused, Sir Philip said: “We’ve recognised throughout there is a risk that some innocent people might be caught up in this but that the risk is numerically very small.” He claimed those accused were able to challenge the decision made by the department through the courts and that it was “for the individual to demonstrate their innocence”.
In response, Ms Mahmood said: “Do you know how much it costs to go to court? They’re not all the children of billionaires or multimillionaires who have come to study in this country and put money into the coffers of our colleges and universities.” The committee is looking into whether the Home Office was negligent in its decision to assume that the vast majority of students who took the Home Office-approved test of English for international communication (Toeic) between 2011 and 2014 cheated. Raising concerns about the government’s course of action against the students, it said some of those affected might have been “branded as cheats, lost their course fees, and been removed from the UK without being guilty of cheating or [being given] adequate opportunity to clear their names”.
In 2014, undercover filming by the BBC uncovered organised cheating in two of the 90 government-approved centres offering the exam required for visa extensions. The Home Office subsequently asked the test provider, the US-based Educational Testing Service (ETS), to investigate whether the 58,459 tests taken between 2011 and 2014 were valid. The US company made checks and concluded that 97% of all UK tests were in some way “suspicious”. It classified 58% as “invalid” and 39% as “questionable”. The Home Office suspended the licences of some test centres and revoked the visas of people accused of cheating.