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English test scandal: Students seek to clear their names


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THOUSANDS of international students are campaigning to clear their names over an English-language test scandal after fresh evidence was presented to the Home Office.

The issue dates to 2014 when a BBC Panorama investigation revealed cheating on a compulsory language test that was required for a visa at two London test centres by some international students.

The UK government reacted by placing Educational Testing Service (ETS), the US company that ran 96 test centres, under criminal investigation. It also asked the company to investigate the allegation.

ETS concluded that 97 per cent of its English tests taken in the UK between 2011 and 2014 were in some way suspicious.

As a result of the investigation, the UK Home Office terminated the visas of more than 34,000 overseas students, making their presence in the UK illegal overnight.

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A further 22,000 were told their test results were “questionable”. More than 2,400 students were deported and a further 7,200 left voluntarily after being warned they would be arrested and detained if they stayed. The remaining, estimated to be in hundreds, have been campaigning to clear their name since then.

Campaigners said it is implausible that 97 per cent of students who took Home Office approved tests, advertised on government websites and taken over a three-year period, were all involved in fraud.

An immigration tribunal heard a test case in December and a decision is expected soon. An expert witness said staff at some test centres where fraud was going on, may have substituted all the tests done by all students for tests done simultaneously by proxies in a hidden room.

This claim suggests that genuine students were unaware of the ongoing fraud as their papers would have been substituted along with those of students who had paid for someone to cheat on their behalf.

In court, ETS was also accused of ignoring evidence of fraud and refusing to shut down test centres.

In 2020, a public accounts committee report concluded the department’s “flawed” handling and “rush to penalise” students caused “injustice and hardship for many thousands of international students”. Earlier this year, a group of international students delivered a petition to UK prime minister Rishi Sunak, urging him to act against the “unjust” revocation of their visas.

Sarbjeet is a 46-year-old Indian student who has been separated from her children for 13 years, as she said she could not return home to India with the allegations hanging over her.

Sanjoy, another affected Indian student, is being sued by the company that sponsored him. He has also been denied the ability to go to the US because his visa withdrawal prevents him from resuming his studies in another country.

The Migrant Voice voluntary group has been supporting the students impacted and coordinated the petition delivered to Downing Street. Earlier this month, they held a meeting with a group of students still fighting for justice, seeking new ways to persuade the Home Office to remove the allegations against them.

“This is one of the biggest scandals in contemporary British history. The initial government reaction was unjust and has been allowed to drag on for years,” said Nazek Ramadan, director of Migrant Voice.

“It could have been resolved by a simple solution, such as allowing the tests to be retaken. The students came here to get a world-class education and best student experience in the world, but instead their lives have been wrecked. It is time for the government to step in and end this nightmare. All it takes to bring this to an end is leadership,” she said.

With no right to stay, work or in a few cases to appeal, most of the accused students returned home.

Those who stayed to clear their names have struggled with homelessness, huge legal fees, stress-induced illnesses and have missed family weddings, births and deaths, the petition appeals.

Parliamentary and watchdog reports over the years have highlighted some flaws in the Home Office evidence used in the case in the past. Although some students won their legal challenges, scores of other students are still in limbo.

Migrant Voice is now underlining the importance of Sunak “addressing the injustice at a time when numbers of students and migrant workers form part of UK-India trade negotiations”. The group has been running the #MyFutureBack campaign for the affected students for over nine years now and urging the UK government to allow these students the chance to clear their names of alleged cheating.

A Home Office spokesperson said: “Abuse of our immigration system will not be tolerated and those who do will face the appropriate measures against them. This includes cheating on English-language tests. Courts have consistently found evidence that is sufficient to take action, and it is only right that we allow these legal processes to run their course.”


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