In an emergency statement to the House of Commons, Immigration Minister James Brokenshire said that work has already begun to identify and remove anyone in the country illegally as a result of the falsified tests.
“The Government does not take such action lightly. But we are clear that this kind of irresponsibility cannot go without serious sanction”
Brokenshire described how a “detailed and wide-ranging” investigation by UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI) and the National Crime Agency uncovered more than 29,000 invalid results and 19,000 questionable results of ETS tests taken in 2012 and 2013 – numbers that are expected to climb as more data is obtained.
“ETS takes this announcement extremely seriously,” a spokesperson said in a statement. “The Home Office has clearly outlined wide-ranging criminal activity by individuals trying to circumvent all parts of the UK immigration system, which represents a threat to all English language testing providers.”
“Integrity and security of our tests is a top priority and we are proactively putting in place significant security reforms for our tests,” it continued, adding that it would continue to cooperate with the Home Office.
ETS’s licence to conduct tests for immigration purposes ended in April, after a BBC documentary uncovered systemic cheating in a TOEIC exam at four London colleges. Its bigger TOEFL exam was not embroiled in the scandal but shared a licence with TOEIC for Secure English Language Testing (SELT).
The investigation into this “organised criminality” also includes a number of colleges and universities for their failure to ensure that the overseas students they sponsor adhere to UK immigration legislation.
Glyndwr University has lost its ‘highly trusted’ sponsor status after the test scores of more than 230 students it sponsored were identified as being invalid, while the University of West London (UWL) and the University of Bedfordshire have been barred from sponsoring new international students pending further investigations to decide whether they will also be suspended.
Vice Chancellor at UWL, Peter John said, “The University of West London’s Highly Trusted Status licence has not been suspended. However, our Confirmation of Acceptance for Studies (CAS) has been reduced to zero, pending an external audit by UKVI early next week. We will be working closely with UKVI over the next seven days and will issue a further statement after that time.”
Brokenshire noted that proof of academic qualifications, attendance at an educational institution and compliance with the Immigration Rules are all required for obtaining a UK student visa.
“It is highly doubtful that many of the colleges and some universities were fulfilling their duties as ‘highly-trusted sponsors'”
“If these student visa applicants had to cheat to pass an English language test it is highly doubtful that many of the colleges and some universities that sponsored them in numbers were fulfilling their duties as ‘highly-trusted sponsors’,” he said.
He added that as many as three-quarters of the file checks by UKVI officers were a cause for concern at some further education (FE) colleges, saying that at one college a staff member had told officers they “were not encouraged to report students’ absence or failure because doing so would reduce the college’s income and jeopardise its right to sponsor foreign students”.
Brokenshire added that because “much of the worst abuse” uncovered through the investigation took place at London sub-campuses, the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) will be conducting inspections in order to determine whether action should be taken against their parent campuses.
The tax body HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) has also identified a number of foreign university students earning over £20,000 a year, apparently in violation of laws stating that they can work a maximum of 20 hours a week during term time.
Nearly 300 overseas students at the private London School of Business and Finance (LSBF) worked and paid tax last year, with one student working 60 hours a week for six months, the government has claimed.
“The Government does not take such action lightly,” Brokenshire said. “But we are clear that this kind of irresponsibility cannot go without serious sanction.”
“The steps I have outlined today shows we will not hesitate to take firm action against those – students, colleges and universities – who do not abide by their legal responsibilities and resolutely pursue organised criminality to bring those responsible to justice.”