The new report, which was launched in Westminster at the presence of APPG members, Migrant Voice and representatives from the students’ group, urged the government to rectify the situation and set out a number of recommendations.
“Tens of thousands of people have spent five years living a nightmare”
“One thing that struck me throughout our hearings was that evidence from ETS – the basis for denying visas to thousands of overseas students, often with catastrophic effects – quite simply could not be relied upon,” Stephen Timms MP, chair of the APPG, said in the foreword of the report.
“The inquiry concluded that the evidence used against the students was confused, misleading, incomplete and unsafe.”
The APPG conducted four evidence sessions with students, lawyers, technical experts and third sectors, representatives. The Home Office and ETS were also invited to attend sessions but the former didn’t respond according to the report and the latter declined to attend.
“This report reveals shocking new evidence that the Home Office ignored expert advice, relied on dodgy evidence and took action against students they claimed were treated fairly,” Migrant Voice director Nazek Ramadan said.
“The result was that tens of thousands of people have spent five years living a nightmare.”
The inquiry reported “huge numbers” of anomalies, such as the lack of proof that links each recording to the person that sat the test and errors on spreadsheets created by ETS.
Professor Peter Sommer, who was instructed by Bindmans LLP in 2016 to assess the overall reliability of the evidence, explained to the APPG that: “It was unsafe for anyone to rely upon computer files created by ETS and used by the Home Office as a sole means of making a decision.”
Evidence also emerged that students on the “questionable list”, who the Home Office maintained had been given a chance to sit a new test, were reportedly sometimes included in the same list as those with “invalid” results, meaning they didn’t get a chance to clear their name.
The APPG also heard from three students affected, who highlighted the impact the allegations have had on their lives.
In addition to being unable to work in the UK or find employment back home, some students said they felt distanced from their families who don’t believe them, while others have been fighting costly legal battles and experiencing mental health issues.
“My Dad said…you cannot come back and tell me you have a fraud allegation…go and prove yourself in the courts,” one student, Raja Noman Hussain, told the APPG.
Legal representatives lamented the lack of opportunities students were given to challenge the allegations, while others pointed out that students who had had their name cleared in court still have difficulty accessing higher education.
Among the APPG’s recommendations, the report said that those who lost their visas should be allowed to sit a new English language test and, if they pass, their visa should be restored without charge with a validity of 12 months.
Support for students returning to study should be established, including the creation of a working group with representatives from Home Office, UKVI and the Department of Education among others.
The key recommendations from the report.
A Home Office spokesperson told The PIE: “the report does not reflect the findings of the courts, who have consistently found that the evidence of fraud was enough for us to take action.
“As the National Audit Office recently highlighted, the Tier 4 system was subject to widespread abuse in 2014 and almost all those involved in the cheating were linked to private colleges which the Home Office already had significant concerns about.
The spokesperson added that the NAO was clear on the scale and organised nature of the abuse, “demonstrated by the fact that 25 people who facilitated this fraud have received criminal convictions”.
But Timms at the APPG told The PIE that “there is no way the evidence can stand up in court.”
“There is nothing at all to link a particular student with the voice files that ETS says were that students’… there’s no metadata on the clips,” he said. A 2016 ruling defined the evidence used by the Home Office as “hearsay.”
The Home Secretary said this week that he will make a statement on the matter before the summer recess. Timms and Jim Fitzpatrick MP discussed the possibility of asking an Urgent Question in case the statement doesn’t come.
“If there isn’t a statement there is always the option for us of applying to the Speaker for an Urgent Question – but I am hoping he is going to do what he has promised,” Timms said.
“The uncertainty is shocking – it’s devastating”
Students and campaigners have been waiting for a statement from the Home Secretary to bring much-needed clarity to those left in limbo by the situation.
The urgency was made clear by Ramadan’s announcement that Migrant Voice will run a workshop next week to advise students on what to do in case they get detained.
“Instead of telling them we have a workshop on how to get back into education or work, we find ourselves, because of the lack of response and repeated delay of that statement, inviting them to a workshop like this,” Ramadan told The PIE.
“They are at risk of being detained anytime. This is a big fear in their life. The uncertainty is shocking – it’s devastating.”
ETS has been contacted for comment.