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Thu 22 October 2020
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The Home Office has made no effort to identify overseas students wrongly accused of cheating in oral exams, according to the Public Accounts Committee.


The Home Office has not learnt lessons from the Windrush scandal over its treatment of 50,000 overseas students from outside the EU and European Economic Area who were accused – many wrongly – of cheating in English language tests to get a university place, MPs have said today.

The Commons’ Public Accounts Committee has said it was “staggered” by the uncaring attitude of the Home Office over the fate of thousands of students who were accused five years ago and had their visas cancelled or voluntarily left the country as a result. Others had to spend thousands of pounds to win court cases against the Government to prove their innocence.

The original cheating scandal came to light when a BBC Panorama programme revealed widespread cheating in the oral exam in 2014, organised under a private contract with ETC, an American company. It closed eight test centres as a result. The Home Office, under then Home Secretary Theresa May, reacted by asking ETS itself to investigate this. The company, using voice recognition equipment, came up with 50,000 cases. It classified 33,663 tests, or 58% of all UK tests, as invalid and 22,476 tests, or 39% of all UK tests, as questionable.

The Home Office took immediate action, demanding that 33,663 people should leave the country and that the other 22,476 should retake the test.

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As a result, “at least 11,356 of these people have since voluntarily left the UK, while the department has removed or refused re-entry to the UK to at least 2,859 individuals,” the report says. “Hundreds, possibly thousands, continue to protest their innocence. Since April 2014, at least 12,500 appeals involving individuals matched to invalid or questionable certificates have been heard by the courts. 40% of people making appeals to the first-tier tribunal have won their appeal.”

One student spent £15,000 in legal fees to justify their innocence on top of paying £45,000 in university fees.

An investigation by the National Audit Office found that the technique used by the company to verify cheating was imperfect and that the Home Office had neither the ability nor interest in challenging the result.

“The department sent a team of civil servants to the United States in 2014 to gain assurances about ETS’ data and its involvement in the cheating but did not ensure that the team had specific expertise or experience in linguistics or relevant technology,” the report says.

The MPs have said that they find the Home Office’s behaviour with regards to the issue “entirely unacceptable”.

“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 says. “During our evidence session, the department admitted publicly for the first time that it was concerned that hundreds of innocent people continue to maintain their innocence, but it has not investigated this sufficiently. The department has made no effort to identify individuals who have been wrongly accused. It is entirely unacceptable that, despite now recognising that hundreds of people still maintain their innocence, the Home Office has not acted to put right the wrongs caused by its actions.”

Meg Hillier, chair of the committee, said: “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… Many hundreds of people continue to protest their innocence at great personal cost. It is staggering that the Home Office thinks it is acceptable to have so little regard for the impact its actions might have on innocent people.

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

The Home Office has consistently argued that there was only a “very small” risk that its actions would affect innocent people.

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