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NAO verdict: Innocent students may have been wrongly removed

“Some people may have been wrongly accused and in some cases, unfairly removed from the UK”: this is the verdict of the UK’s National Audit Office which has assessed the case of international students who were accused of cheating in TOIEC exams needed to gain the right to study in the country.

Students impacted by TOEIC cheating scandalThe students with representatives of Migrant Voice and MPs in Parliament Square. Photo: The PIE News

"There is real doubt if a recording held by ETS is really the one for that applicant"

The government watchdog has released a report into the Home Office’s handling of the so-called TOEIC cheating scandal. 

It states that while widespread cheating has taken place, the Home Office failed to protect those who may have been wrongly accused – and also those who were caught up in the fallout as their colleges were subsequently closed.

“When the Home Office acted vigorously to exclude individuals and shut down colleges involved… we think they should have taken an equally vigorous approach to protect those who did not cheat but who were still caught up in the process, however small a proportion they might be,” head of NAO Amyas Morse said.

“This did not happen.” ​

In 2014, thousands of international students had their visa cancelled or were detained or deported on allegations of cheating. According to NAO, 11,000 left the country; 7,200 voluntarily and 2,500 were forcibly removed. A further 400 were refused re-entry to the country.

“They should have taken an equally vigorous approach to protect those who did not cheat”

In 2014, the report explained, ETS used new voice recognition technology to assess whether a test had been taken by a proxy, and identified 97% of all UK tests as suspicious.

It classified 39% as “questionable” and 58% of 58,459 tests as “invalid,” – these were the visas the Home Office started cancelling, the report states, although it “did not have the expertise to validate the results nor did it, at this stage, get an expert opinion on the quality of the voice recognition evidence.”

Subsequently, there were “competing” views on the validity of the technology, the report added.

Although 49% of invalid tests were taken by highly fluent English speakers, some scores are “not easily explained” by the methods of cheating identified by the BBC documentary, but have not been investigated by the Home Office, NAO explained.

“The NAO has confirmed – as many have been pointing out for years now – that “those affected might have been branded as cheats, lost their course fees, and been removed from the UK without being guilty of cheating,” Stephen Timms MP said.

“And… there is real doubt if a recording held by ETS is really the one for that applicant.

“Thousands have been unfairly penalised, with catastrophic consequences for many,” he added.

Timms called on the Home Secretary to give the students a chance to clear their name by offering them a fresh English test.

Meg Hillier MP, chair of the Committee of Public Accounts, added, “The NAO’s investigation lays bare the Home Office’s concerning reliance on voice recognition evidence to detect cheating; only subjecting it to independent review after two years of using it as the basis to revoke visas.”

She urged the Home Office to check whether its response had been fair and proportionate for all those involved.

Migrant Voice director Nazek Ramadan said the report proved the Home Office failed to scrutinise the evidence provided by ETS despite “significant flaws” in the data.

“Those affected might have been removed from the UK without being guilty”

“The way the Home Office has treated these students makes a mockery of the British justice system… and the impact has been devastating.

“Those still living under the shadow of the allegation and fighting to clear their names are living every day in growing despair,” she said.

Ramadan added that NAO reporting that 2,500 have been forcibly deported and 400 stopped from entering the UK (numbers which it defined a possible “underestimate”) prove that the threat of detention and deportation is real.

Speaking to The PIE, English UK chief executive Sarah Cooper said that while there have been other threats to the reputation of the UK as an international education destination, this shouldn’t be underestimated – but the industry, she said, has come a long way from 2014 and close collaboration with government will prevent this from happening again.

“We must encourage collaboration [with government], so we can protect the reputation of the sector while supporting individual students… we have a moral responsibility when we recruit international students to give them the best possible experience,” she said.

Universities UK said it will discuss any concerns universities have with the new APPG on TOEIC and urged the government to learn the lesson from this “damaging episode” and prevent it from happening again.

“Where there is evidence that innocent students have had historic, wrongful action taken against them then the Home Office should act swiftly to correct this,” a spokesperson said.

“We have a moral responsibility to give [international students] the best possible experience”

“In individual cases where allegations of cheating were made, universities – having previously acted on advice from the Home Office – will have to make decisions based on individual circumstances and wider policies.”

The Home Office relayed that the Home Secretary will make a statement in Parliament upon consideration of the report.

“The report is clear on the scale and organised nature of the abuse, which is demonstrated by the fact that 25 people who facilitated this fraud have received criminal convictions,” a Home Office spokesperson said.

Additional reporting by Kerrie Kennedy.

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