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UK: New report blasts Home Office handling of the TOEIC case

“The Home Office thinks it is acceptable to have so little regard for the impact its actions might have on innocent people”: this is how the Public Accounts Committee described the Home Office’s handling of the TOEIC case and international students allegedly cheating in their TOEIC exam.

English language test victimsA demonstration in Parliament Square earlier this year. Photo: The PIE News

“It is not too late for the Home Office to put right what it got so wrong"

The PAC’s just-released report criticises the department for not proactively identifying the innocent students who got caught up in its decision to revoke thousands of visas, and urges it to rectify the situation.

“As with the Windrush scandal, the Home Office has once again not done enough to identify the innocent”

The government department’s rapid moves to establish the extent of cheating – and then glacial response to those students protesting their innocence – had a “detrimental impact on the lives of over 50,000 students”, it blasts.

“[The Home Office] has been quick to act on imperfect evidence, but slow in responding to indications that innocent people may have been caught up in its actions,” the report states.

It criticises the Home Office for accepting the evidence presented by ETS “at face value,” but not accepting other evidence from those students who were accused of cheating.

It also didn’t investigate contradictory evidence, the report adds, despite concerns that the NUS and the Home Affairs Select Committee raised.

“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 report states.

It provides another acknowledgement for all the students campaigning to be able to resit an English language test and continue their studies in the UK that their efforts – and those of the MPs and other stakeholders supporting them – that their advocacy is making an impact.

“Today’s report by the Public Accounts Committee makes grim reading for the Home Office,” Stephen Timms MP told The PIE News.

“Once again it is found that ministers made repeated errors of judgement when confronted with unsafe and incomplete evidence. The decisions they made have caused untold hardship to thousands of students who overnight had their visas revoked, cancelled or curtailed, with little or no legal redress.

“It is not too late for the Home Office to put right what it got so wrong and finally give the students the justice they deserve.”

The licensing model for Secure English Language Testing was also criticised: it left the system vulnerable to fraud and prevented the department from seeking compensation from ETS.

According to the report, the Home Office recuperated only a fraction of the estimated £21 million it spent to respond to the initial cheating uncovered in a TV expose of a handful of test centres.

“The Home Office’s flawed reaction to a systemic failure by a private company has led to real injustice for many thousands of overseas students taking English Language tests,” PAC chair Meg Hillier MP said in a statement.

“However, despite the scale of the abuse, many hundreds of people continue to protest their innocence at great personal cost.

“And to rub salt into the wounds, shortcomings in the contractual arrangements the Home Office had with its outsourcing partner meant despite incurring £21m in costs it only recouped £1.6m for the taxpayer – a minuscule sum,” she added.

The department has maintained that the risk of its response affecting innocent student was very small – although the UK statistics authority confirmed in a letter to Stephen Timms MP last week that there is “considerable uncertainty” in the 1% estimate of false-positive the HO has frequently quoted.

During the evidence sessions for the PAC report, the HO admitted it was concerned that hundreds of people continued to maintain their innocence.

But the PAC report noted the Home Office hasn’t taken action to proactively identify those who have been unjustly accused of cheating and has not established a clear mechanism for them to raise concern outside of the appeals process, something the report defines as “shameful.”

The PAC urged the HO, within three months from the publication of the report, to create and promote a “fair and trustworthy means” to help all those who have unjustly been accused to come forward and clear their names, including ensuring that all evidence from ETS is made available to them.

“We have seen first-hand the extreme hardship [the students] face every single day”

“We particularly welcome the recommendation for the Home Office to urgently design and implement a genuine means for innocent students to clear their names, and we urge the Home Secretary to make that happen,” Nazek Ramadan, director of Migrant Voice, said.

The charity has submitted two pieces of written evidence to the PAC inquiry and worked with a number of students to help them submit evidence.

“Working alongside many of the students affected, we have seen first-hand the extreme hardship they face every single day as a direct result of the Home Office’s deeply flawed reaction,” she added.

“We urge the Home Secretary to read this report and take the necessary action to end this injustice and demonstrate that international students truly are welcome in this country.”

The report recommended the Home Office review its arrangements with overseas partners to include redress mechanisms in the event of contractor failure, in light of its difficulty obtaining compensation from ETS.

This report is the third into the case this year after the National Audit Office and the APPG TOEIC report.

ETS has been contacted by The PIE for comment.

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