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Student Visas

Volume 754: debated on Tuesday 24 June 2014


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I will now repeat a Statement made by my honourable friend the Minister for Immigration, Mr James Brokenshire, in the House of Commons earlier today. The Statement is as follows.

“With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a Statement on the abuse of student visas. Since the last election, the Government have taken action across the board to reduce and control immigration. We have introduced a cap on economic migration from outside the European Union, we have reformed the family visa system and we have eliminated much of the abuse of the student visa system we saw under the previous Government. The result is that net migration from outside the EU is close to its lowest levels since the late 1990s, while net migration is down by a third since its peak under the party opposite.

The Government have always said that even in light of the reforms we have introduced, we need to keep each of the main immigration routes to Britain under review, we need to remain vigilant against abuse of the student visa system, and education providers need to meet their responsibilities.

That is why I can tell the House that, since the start of February, immigration enforcement officers, with the support from the National Crime Agency, together with officials from UK Visas and Immigration, have been conducting a detailed and wide-ranging investigation into actions by organised criminals to falsify English language tests for student visa applicants. They have also investigated a number of colleges and universities for their failure to make sure that the foreign students they have sponsored meet the standards set out in the Immigration Rules.

Since the reforms we introduced in 2011, it has been a requirement for all student visa applicants to prove that they can speak English at an appropriate level. All students in further education or at a university which relies on English language testing who want to extend their stay by applying for a new student visa have to be tested by one of five companies licensed by the Government. One of those companies, the European subsidiary of an American firm called Educational Testing Service, was exposed by the BBC’s “Panorama” programme earlier this year, following systematic cheating at a number of its UK test centres. Facilitated by organised criminals, this typically involved invigilators supplying, even reading out, answers to whole exam rooms, or gangs of impostors being allowed to step into the exam candidates’ places to sit the test. Evidently, this could happen only with considerable collusion by the test centres concerned.

Having been provided with analysis from the American arm of ETS for a number of ETS test centres in the UK operating in 2012 and 2013, officials have identified more than 29,000 invalid results and more than 19,000 questionable results. As they still have to receive test analyses from ETS for other testing centres that it operated in the UK, it is likely that the true totals will be higher.

Officials from immigration enforcement and UK Visas and Immigration have not found evidence to suggest there is systematic cheating taking place in the tests carried out by the other providers. As soon as the allegations of systematic cheating were first made, we suspended ETS testing in the UK, put a hold on all immigration applications from those in the UK using an ETS test certificate, and made all applications from overseas subject to interview by UK Visas and Immigration staff. In April ETS’s licence to conduct tests for immigration purposes ended, and two weeks ago, we formally removed the company as a test provider in the Immigration Rules.

Because of the organised criminality that lies behind the falsified tests, the National Crime Agency has been brought in to work alongside immigration enforcement officers to pursue criminal action against the perpetrators. Immigration enforcement has begun work to identify anybody who is in the country illegally as a result of the falsified tests, so that they can be removed. Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs is also helping the investigation by scrutinising pay and tax records. A criminal investigation has been launched into the role of ETS Global Ltd. More generally, immigration enforcement is working to identify, pursue and prosecute those involved in facilitating this activity, and to investigate links to wider organised crime. Arrests have been made and I expect that more will follow.

I should be clear that proof that a visa applicant can speak English is only one test for somebody seeking to study in Britain. Other requirements include proof of academic qualifications, attendance at college or university and compliance with the Immigration Rules. If these student visa applicants had to cheat to pass an English language test, it is highly doubtful that many of the colleges and some of the universities that sponsored them in numbers were fulfilling their duties as highly trusted sponsors.

As I said earlier in my Statement, UKVI and immigration enforcement officers have been investigating many of the colleges and universities I am talking about because of wider concerns about their conduct. The evidence they have provided of what is going on in these institutions is cause for serious concern.

The work undertaken by HMRC has identified a number of overseas university students earning more than £20,000 a year, despite the rule that they must not work more than 20 hours per week during term time. Overseas students at privately funded further education colleges are not allowed to work at all, yet one college—the London School of Business & Finance—has more than 290 foreign students who worked and paid tax last year. One university student identified by HMRC had been working a 60-hour week for six months.

UKVI identified people allegedly studying in London while their home addresses were registered as restaurants as far as away as Ipswich and Chichester. Students sponsored by Glyndwr University so far identified with invalid test results provided by ETS number more than 230, rising to more than 350 if you add the scores counted as questionable. The comparable figures for the University of West London are more than 210 sponsored students with invalid scores, rising to more than 290 when questionable scores are included.

At certain private further education colleges, as many as three-quarters of the file checks completed by UKVI officers were a cause for concern. At one college, a staff member told UKVI officers that they were encouraged not to report students’ absences or failures because doing so would reduce the college’s income and jeopardise its right to sponsor foreign students. The Government are not prepared to tolerate this abuse. So I can tell the House that this morning the Home Office suspended the highly trusted sponsor status—that is, the right to sponsor foreign students—of Glyndwr University.

In addition, we have suspended the licences of 57 private further education colleges, a list of which I will place in the Library of the House. We have told a further two universities—the University of Bedfordshire and the University of West London—that they are no longer allowed to sponsor new students, pending further investigations which will decide whether they, too, should be suspended.

Other universities are involved in the continuing investigation and further action may follow, although, because of the steps they have already taken to improve their processes, including voluntarily ceasing overseas recruitment to London sub-campuses, we will not at this stage remove their right to sponsor foreign students. Because much of the worst abuse we have uncovered seems to be taking place at London sub-campuses of universities based in other parts of the country, I can also tell the House that the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education will examine these London campuses to see whether further action should be taken against their parent universities.

The Government do not take such action lightly. However, we are clear that this kind of irresponsibility cannot go without serious sanction. We have already removed some 750 bogus colleges from the list of those entitled to bring foreign students to Britain and of these almost 400 we now know were linked to those who obtained invalid ETS certificates.

We have tightened up the rules for individual students. We have reduced the level of immigration to Britain, in part by cutting out the abuse in the student visa system, but we have always said that we must remain vigilant against abuse. The steps I have outlined today show that we will not hesitate to take firm action against those students, colleges and universities which do not abide by their legal responsibilities and resolutely pursue organised criminality to bring those responsible to justice. I commend this Statement to the House”.

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

My Lords, the most important criterion of any immigration and visa system is its integrity. Governments should always take swift and effective action to stop any abuses of the system and must always be vigilant to prevent abuse. The scale of abuse outlined in the Minister’s Statement is absolutely shocking and it is right that action is taken to tackle such abuse. Indeed, the Labour Government closed 140 colleges between April 2009 and January 2010. My questions are on the practicalities and implications, rather than the principle.

As the Minister said in repeating the Statement, following the BBC “Panorama” programme’s investigation in February the Government announced that they had suspended language tests run by ETS. Can the Minister clarify the timescale of who knew what and when? When were Ministers made aware of the scale of the abuse? Was that before or after the BBC investigation? If they knew before, why was action not taken earlier? If they did not know before, how is it that after four years in government the BBC knew about it before the Government did? The longer this goes on, the greater the culpability of the Government in not tackling it.

The Minister referred to criminal proceedings. Can he tell us who those proceedings will be against and how long those investigations will take? Will they include proceedings against the 48,000 people who fraudulently obtained language certificates? Do the Government know who they are and where they are? The Statement says that arrests were made but how many have been made to date? With regard to the universities, what discussions and consultations have there been with those universities where action has been taken? What are the implications for lawful, legitimate university students and institutions?

The Government’s independent inspector, John Vine, issued warnings about the system’s abuse in 2012. However, it appears that no serious action was taken until the BBC investigation, so this is a crisis created on the Government’s watch. The Government have talked tough but done very little and while this abuse was festering, we had the nonsense of an Immigration Bill that did nothing to tackle the abuses we are talking about today but proposed actions detrimental to law-abiding universities and their genuine students. In the interests of national security and the integrity of the system, and in the interests of those universities and students that abide by the rules and bring huge benefit to this country, the Government must restore confidence.

My Lords, I accept that the noble Baroness is right to point out the seriousness of this situation but I do not think that she is right to try to single out the actions of this Government in that respect. We were taking action to investigate the whole scale of abuse in London colleges before the ETS fraud was revealed through the “Panorama” programme. At that point, we realised why it was that we had found such large-scale abuse going on in London colleges as a result.

I cannot say to the noble Baroness that I welcome her words on the Immigration Act. Much of the focus of that Act was designed specifically to deal with the problem of student abuse. I am mindful of those occasions on which the noble Baroness has called for students to be removed from net migration figures. Does this not show how right the Government are to seek to tighten up in this area, because of the failure of the previous Government to tackle the problem at all? The truth of the matter is that we came in with an immigration process that was totally incapable of examining the out-of-control flow of immigration into this country. A little bit of humility on the part of the noble Baroness might help this particular problem.

She asked about criminal proceedings. I am not prepared to talk about them because of their nature, except to say that it is quite clear that criminality has been involved in this case. I hope that I have the support of the noble Baroness in the Government’s attempt to make sure that the abuse of the system that has been exposed by our investigations into London colleges and by the BBC “Panorama” programme is effectively dealt with. We are putting responsibility where it lies—which is on the colleges, to make sure that they keep orderly houses and discourage irregular use of the student visa passage for working and illegal immigration into this country.

My Lords, I am sure that the Minister shares my and many people’s anger and shame that so many innocent students have been duped and have had cheating promoted to them as if it were a British value—which clearly it is not. Can the Minister tell the House whether the individual students caught up in this will have a chance to retake the tests before immigration action is taken against them? Can he also say what positive steps the Government are taking to promote the sector, which we all agree is such an important export? We know that a factor in students choosing to come and study here is whether they feel welcome or not.

I will start with the last suggestion made by my noble friend because it is really important. Despite having to deal with this problem— I think the whole House will understand why the Government have had to deal with this problem—we recognise the enormous asset that we have in the higher education and further education facilities in this country. They are global assets and we want them to be available to the world. But they must be conducted under rules which reflect the fact that people come here to study and not as a short cut to involvement in working.

We have had a lot of debates in the House. I think that some of the best have been on this subject, but sometimes I have been the only person saying that students should remain within the net migration figures. I hope that noble Lords who thought differently will be thinking along my lines now and seeing how important it is. I have emphasised that we want the brightest and the best to come here, but they should do so with their sponsorship in order and without the criminality that has been revealed by this particular investigation.

My Lords, I have a question as to the order of events referred to in the Statement. In the first place, the investigation into these important matters started, we are told, at the beginning of February. There is also a reference to the BBC “Panorama” programme, which was also at the beginning of the year. Which of these two events came first? Was it the “Panorama” programme which stimulated the investigation? If so, should it not be given credit for it?

I hope that I have paid tribute. The Statement did, in fact, pay tribute to the “Panorama” programme. It has done the country huge service in revealing this abuse. I asked the very same question when I was being briefed on the issue earlier today. There was indeed an investigation by immigration enforcement—UKVI itself had initiated an investigation of the London colleges. It appears that the London-based colleges have been causing trouble, in particular where the universities are established elsewhere and have branches in this country.

We did not have suspicions about English-language testing until it came up as a result of the “Panorama” programme. The two things are complementary and reinforce the action that the Government have taken in investigating the matter.

My Lords, on what date was the subsidiary of ETS given a contract to carry out this work? What assurances were sought from these private companies when they were hired to carry out this work that they were competent to do it? Will the Minister admit that he is muddling up two completely different issues when he suggests that this has something to do with the category under which students should be placed, whether part of the migration statistics or in a separate category for students? That has nothing to do with the issue that we have been discussing today, the appalling lapse in standards by a company presumably hired by this Government, which the Minister has told the House about.

ETS was licensed in 2011 to carry out the English-language testing that we brought in at that time. ETS has been a long-standing supplier of educational testing services to the Government. Its appointment in such a role predates our period in office. Five companies were selected by a process of competition to perform this task, and ETS was one of the successful companies. In all fairness, we had no reason to suppose that it would be undertaking this task fraudulently.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that this issue has been going on for at least a decade? This is about the fifth time that I have stood up on this issue. Are not his actions greatly to be welcomed? Is it not really worrying to discover that time and again our newer universities and colleges, on the whole, are at fault? Previously it was London colleges, and now I hear that my home county of Bedfordshire is under deep suspicion. Will my noble friend tell us what action will be taken when he has carried out his investigations to ensure that senior personnel at those universities who are, or are supposed to be, in charge are fully reprimanded and, I hope, removed from their posts?

My Lords, how universities deal with this is largely a matter for them. I believe that I was right to draw the attention of the House to those measures which we eventually agreed in the Immigration Act to deal with this matter. It should make it much easier to monitor and deal with in future, but we have to deal with things at present. I emphasise that the vast majority of students here are genuine and are here to study. We want to make sure that we give them our support. We want to make sure that the vast majority of educational institutions are genuine and doing their best for their students’ education. We will invite the Department for Education, the Higher Education Funding Council for England, the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales, the Scottish funding agencies, Universities UK and the National Union of Students to join a working group on how we offer support to genuine students who find themselves in situations not of their making as a result of the measures that we are taking today.

My Lords, it is very pleasing that the Minister managed to make some sympathetic remarks about overseas students. I thought that the initial Statement, which, I appreciate, was read in the House of Commons, was deeply depressing, seeing students as a threat and not an opportunity or enrichment of this country, and seeing the issue in terms of immigration and not of educational policy. Is not the real explanation of this problem to do with privatisation? We are not talking about universities; we are talking about a whole range of privately funded colleges and institutions, many of them in London, which do not observe the strict academic and educational standards of our universities, of one of which I had the privilege of being a vice-chancellor. The institution that is under criticism is a hived-off institution to deal with English language teaching. I hope that the Minister, who I know to be a very progressive-minded man, will take the opportunity to affirm that real universities observe the highest standards in inquiring into the educational and personal background of students. It is really quite unfair of the Statement made in the House of Commons to confuse them with a number of far inferior institutions.

I am sorry that the noble Lord has taken that view of the Statement. I think that it described why we were taking action this day to deal with particular institutions. I stayed for the questions after seeing my honourable friend Mr Brokenshire make his Statement, and he was at pains to emphasise that our relationship with universities is very important to us, because £2.8 billion—or is it 2.8%?—of the British economy is in the educational sector. I shall not rise to the fly that the noble Lord has cast across me about privatisation. I do not think that that matters. The truth of the matter is that all education institutions, whether public or private, must conduct themselves in a proper fashion. That is what we are seeking to emphasise. However, as I think I made clear earlier, I believe in the universities of this country. They enhance our lives and prosperity and enable us to have a presence in the world that we would not have without their international role.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for once again reassuring us with his usual balance and judgment of the situation. We are all appalled that there should have been exploitation in this way. My noble friend referred to the duping of students. Some of these students would have been duped, not knowing any better about what they should do and relying on what they seemed to think was authoritative advice. What steps will be taken to strike Educational Testing Services off the list of approved organisations for this purpose in future, and can he tell us what other sanctions might be exercised to ensure that these crucial agencies satisfy the requirements that the Government ask of them?

I am not an arrogant sort of person, as my noble friend will know, and I think that there are lessons for the Government to learn from this situation. It is right that we should seek to learn these lessons. I agree with her that many of the individuals involved may well have been perfectly innocent of the circumstances in which they now find themselves, of being illegally in this country, having applied through one of these bogus entry systems, which contain in them a germ of criminality, as I said earlier. How that aspect is dealt with will be a matter for the courts to decide. Meanwhile, as I say, I am quite prepared to accept that there are things that the Government can learn from this experience, and there is a need to ensure that we play our part in supporting universities in their job.

My Lords, the Minister very properly makes the point that the vast majority of foreign students are perfectly genuine entrants into the United Kingdom. However, there are two issues, one of which is the bogus student. I applaud the Government for their action, but I hope that they do not send an unfortunate message, which they do not intend to send, with regard to the general welcome of students into the United Kingdom.

The other issue is that of the genuine student in relation to the classification of immigration. As I see it, the situation is this: over the past two years, the Prime Minister has said very clearly that he wishes to see annual immigration reduced to a figure below 100,000. I think that is a fair estimate of what he said. At the same time, it has been said time and time again in both Houses of Parliament that genuine students are nevertheless to be regarded as immigrants. That is the classical and historic way in which they have been regarded, and I believe they were regarded in that way by the previous Government. In light of the fact that the number of genuine students whose genuineness is not in any way in dispute is in excess of 100,000 per annum, how can the two objectives ever be served—in other words, keeping immigration below 100,000 and at the same time welcoming every genuine non-EU student? At the moment there is a dichotomy. What do the Government intend to do about it?

I think that I have made our policy clear—namely, to encourage genuine students to this country. I do not see any fundamental difficulty with that, and I am not in favour of moving the goalposts on this issue. The Government have their objective of reducing net migration. The noble Lord suggests that that might be in conflict with a policy which encourages genuine students to come here. I do not believe that the two are incompatible. I think that it is possible to achieve both and it is certainly the Government’s aim and ambition to do that. However, to do that, we need the co-operation of the university and college sector. No gathering of individuals contains more people associated with universities and colleges than perhaps this House. I appeal to everyone who is involved in university courts, is a vice-chancellor or is involved in any way whatever to emphasise the Government’s determination to maintain the importance of the sector but also to emphasise to those involved in university administration the importance of applying their mind to the consequences of illegal immigration to this country and of playing their part in seeking to eliminate it.

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that my experience of validating the polytechnic sector for 10 years led me to complain that there was no system of quality control in higher education, as opposed to quality assurance, which is really just academics cosily scratching each others’ backs? Does not this story call into question the usefulness of our Quality Assurance Agency? How could all this go on right under its nose? Is it not time that we set up a system of higher education quality control, which would have many wider benefits as well?

The noble Lord will understand that a university’s funding is dependent upon it satisfying the funding agency, HEFCE, on the quality of education being provided. I have great faith in the Quality Assurance Agency. As a result of today’s announcements, we will use it to check out further those colleges which are still the subject of our concerns and anxieties following the inquiries. Therefore, I do not share the noble Lord’s views on this issue.

My Lords, should it not be obvious to academic institutions when students do not have a proper command of English? If they do not exercise caution in this regard, is it not inevitable that they will lose their highly trusted sponsorship status?

I agree with my noble friend. That is why we are particularly concerned that the institutions themselves failed to take proper regard of the fact that some of their students were not capable of speaking English properly and had insufficient command of the language, and we know that in some cases the students concerned were not really studying at all but were out there working. The HMRC figures have clearly demonstrated this, and that is why we are taking this action.

My Lords, what positive steps are being taken to ensure that innocent students at these institutions do not suffer unnecessary hardship and are not left stranded? If that happens, it will send a negative message about how much we welcome students. It is important that steps are taken to ensure that innocent students do not suffer.

The noble Baroness will know that previously we had to suspend the sponsorship status of London Met, and we worked closely with the university. We are doing the same now because it is not in our interests to upset the studies of those who are here and clearly want to continue them. We want those students to feel that they can carry on. That is our objective and we will be doing that. Meanwhile, we have to say to the colleges and universities I have mentioned that it is in their hands—it is their responsibility to take the necessary measures to make sure that they run an orderly establishment.