Theresa May and the Home Office are to become the centre of a full inquiry for the way the department treated international students in the UK in the wake of the TOEIC exam cheating scandal.
The Home Affairs Committee - which oversees Home Office policy and expenditure - published a damning report on Friday which says the department’s actions of removing tens of thousands of students from the country appear to have been “a knee-jerk reaction” to a TV documentary.
The Committee highlights in the report: “It is extraordinary the Home Office has carried out no independent investigation itself of the allegations of fraud in relation to English language testing and, instead, has relied on evidence from ETS, one of its approved providers and a party under criminal investigation.”
The scandal came to light in February 2014 after BBC’s Panorama uncovered a practice of fraudulent activity at two London language centres run by Educational Testing Service (ETS) - one of the world’s largest language examiners and a Home Office-approved test provider for three years.
Shortly after, Mrs May had come under fire for using the incidents at the two schools to incriminate all overseas students who sat the test in the UK, and for relying too heavily on the information in the programme and from ETS.
To date, the Committee says more than 28,000 refusal and removal decisions have been made, and that over 4,600 people have been removed from the UK. The Indian Workers’ Association has estimated 70 per cent of those affected are of Indian nationality. Around 100 privately-operated further education colleges have also had their licences suspended or revoked.
Oliver Robbins, Second Permanent Secretary at the Home Office, told the Committee the ETS case shows “widespread, deep, and very troublesome deception” of the immigration rules. However, he added: “The Home Office is convinced its response has been both immediate and proportionate to the risks highlighted.”
The Committee, though, says a recent judgement of the Upper Tribunal on the operation of the testing system raises “serious questions” about the conduct of the Home Office.
The report continues: “The Home Office appears to have accepted at face value, and continues to accept, claims of widespread fraud from ETS - a company that was part of the problem, had already been discredited, and is subject to criminal investigation.
“This is deeply troubling, particularly given an expert witness has raised serious questions over the reliability and accuracy of ETS’s analysis and first did so well over a year ago.”
On the whole, the Committee has described how critics of the process argue the response of the Home Office has been “overly-aggressive,” adding: “Some students [have been] detained during dawn raids and deported without the opportunity to sort out their belongings. In many cases, it has been based on insufficient evidence of wrongdoing, leading to many innocent people being caught up by the Department’s sweeping action. Those affected have not been granted the opportunity to review and contest the evidence against them.”
Announcing plans “to undertake a full inquiry” into the matter, the Home Office has been ordered to set out the process for out-of-country appeals, the steps which will be taken to ensure a fair hearing, and whether this will include appellants being given access to the evidence against them.
The Committee is also insisting ETS give evidence, “something they have failed to do in court.”
The Home Office has said it intends to fully co-operate with the inquiry, including providing full responses to the issues which have been identified, and expert evidence on the reliability and accuracy of ETS’s analysis.
The National Union of Students (NUS) has welcomed the Committee’s demands, having made similar ones in April, and said it was “pleased to see a positive step” in ensuring justice for the students affected.
Mostafa Rajaai, NUS international students’ officer, said: “This whole debacle is indicative of the Home Office’s wider aggressive approach to international students and other migrants in the UK. I’m pleased the Committee is taking the treatment of international students seriously. Clearly, the Home Office does not.
“International students contribute billions of pounds to British society, enable home students to benefit from diverse classrooms, and bring wider cultural benefits to this country. It is only right they are treated with fairness and respect while studying here.”
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