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Overseas Students: TOEIC Tests

Volume 797: debated on Tuesday 30 April 2019


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I will now repeat in the form of a Statement the Answer given by my right honourable friend the Immigration Minister to an Urgent Question in the other place. The Statement is as follows:

“Mr Speaker, test centres operated on behalf of ETS were the subject of a BBC ‘Panorama’ programme in February 2014 which aired footage of the systematic cheating in English language tests at a number of its UK test centres. Further investigation demonstrated just how widespread this was. Its scale is shown by the fact that 25 people involved in organising and facilitating language test fraud have received criminal convictions. They have been sentenced to a total of over 70 years’ imprisonment, and further criminal investigations are ongoing.

There was also a strong link to wider abuse of the student visa route. An NAO report of 2012 made it clear that abuse of that route was rife and estimated that in its first year of operation, 2009, up to 50,000 used the tier 4 student route to work, not study. Most students linked to the fraud were sponsored by private colleges, many of which the Home Office already had significant concerns about, predating the BBC investigation. Indeed, 400 colleges which had sponsored students linked to ETS had already had their licences revoked before 2014.

Over the course of 2014, ETS systematically analysed all tests taken in the UK dating back to 2011—over 58,000 of them. Analysis of the test results identified 33,725 invalid results and 22,694 questionable results. Those with questionable results were given the chance to resit a test or attend an interview before any action was taken. People who used invalid ETS test certificates to obtain immigration leave have had action taken against them.

The courts have consistently found that the evidence for invalid cases created a reasonable suspicion of fraud and was enough for the Home Office to act upon. It is then up to individuals, through either appeals or judicial reviews, to refute this. Despite this, concerns have been expressed about whether innocent people could have been caught up in this. The Home Secretary has listened to the apprehensions of some Members, including the honourable member for East Ham, and has asked officials for further advice. The National Audit Office is also currently in the process of concluding an investigation into the handling of these issues. This is expected to be published next month. Obviously, my right honourable friend the Home Secretary has taken a close interest in this issue and will be reviewing the conclusions of the NAO, and, once he has time to consider it in full, will be making a Statement to the House”.

I thank the Minister for repeating the Answer to an Urgent Question in another place.

In his first appearance in that capacity in the Commons about a year ago, the Home Secretary gave an assurance that he would investigate the Test of English for International Communication scandal. Why are we still awaiting a decision when about 34,000 student visas have been cancelled? The delay cannot be laid at the door of the NAO, as the Answer to the UQ appears to suggest. Is the Home Secretary aware of the damage, distress and loss caused to international students wrongly accused of cheating in their English language test, some of whom have had to end their studies and some of whom have been wrongly deported?

Is the Secretary of State continuing to rely on evidence from Educational Testing Services as to the alleged scale of cheating—evidence which has been discredited by both expert opinion and, repeatedly, in the courts? What was the financial settlement reached by the Home Office and ETS after its licence was revoked? ETS thinks that just about everyone who sat the test either cheated or had questionable results, a figure that was as unbelievable as ETS itself appears to be. How many appeals have been heard against revocation, refusal or curtailment of student visas on TOEIC grounds, and how many have been won by the applicants?

Finally, what lessons has the Home Office learned from this debacle about English language tests and its hostile environment policy, which is obviously still in play? If I cannot have full answers to these questions today, I should be grateful for a written response.

I thank the noble Lord and welcome him back to his place on the Front Bench. He asked several questions, the first being “Why the delay?” This is an issue of widespread fraud—setting up and using these test centres and colleges— that took place over several years. He will know that, under this Government and indeed under the coalition Government, we have now closed more than 900 such colleges since 2011.

On those who may be wrongly accused, the noble Lord will recall the report by Professor Peter French, which concluded that the number of false matches was likely to be very small and that the system would give people the benefit of the doubt, so the number of people wrongly accused was likely to be extremely low. The courts have always said, even when finding against the Home Office on individual facts of case, that sufficient evidence should be there to make an accusation of fraud, but it is up to the individual then to rebut it. However, we recognise the concerns; we do not refute the concerns raised by a Member of the other place. That is why the Home Secretary has now asked for further advice and why the NAO is also investigating, and the Home Secretary will respond when he has sight of both that advice and the NAO’s findings.

The noble Lord asked whether a settlement was reached. It was. For reasons of commercial confidentiality, I cannot discuss that, but I will see whether I can find out more for him.

The noble Lord also talked about the hostile environment. This is not about being hostile to people who want to work or study in this country. To use a study visa in order to work is to try to game the system, which is exactly what was going on here and why we closed down so many of those colleges.

My Lords, Fatema Chowdhury came to the UK from Bangladesh in 2010 and finished her law degree in 2014 at the University of London. She was at one stage detained for a week after being accused of cheating in the English test, which she denies. I appreciate that the Minister cannot comment on individual cases, but can she say how likely it is that an individual had to cheat in an English language test but then went on to successfully complete a double degree at the University of London? Why is the hostile environment towards immigrants created by the Home Office still alive and kicking?

My Lords, the issue at the heart of this was not the questioning of people’s competence in English but the fact that a fraud was committed. I cannot say to the noble Lord how many people found themselves in detention, because we do not disaggregate those sorts of figures. Of course, as for individual cases, I am not at liberty to discuss them.

My Lords, I am entirely prepared to await the reports now under consideration which the Minister says will be the object of Statements in both Houses when their conclusions are reached, but could we please not elide the action taken quite correctly by the coalition Government to close down a huge number of dodgy language schools—which all of us strongly supported and where we believe a good job was done—with what is going now? Let us start a little bit later than that and see what is being done now. For example—perhaps the Minister could reply to this, too—it is not sensible to create the impression that a huge number of people on education visas are overstaying. We now have statistical evidence that it is a tiny number, yet for years Home Office Ministers stood at the Dispatch Box saying that it was a huge number. The interest of our universities, which are a major national asset, was not well served by stories of the sort that we are hearing now. As I said, it is perfectly reasonable for the Minister to say, “Wait, please, till the NAO has reported; wait till the Home Secretary has had a glance at that”, but can we not rake over all these old stories when we come to the report but start from somewhere a little nearer the present time?

I am grateful to the noble Lord for making that point, because we need to start from where we are now. The system in place was a very old one and, as he said, the coalition Government did much to close down those dodgy colleges, as he called them. The same NAO found that well over 97% of students are compliant with their visas, which is very good news. We would not want to conflate our welcome for those coming to this country to study with what was a very dodgy process—fraudulent, in fact. I welcome what the noble Lord said, and I would not want to conflate what happened then with a very good news story now: a 28% increase in the number of international students since 2010 and a 10% increase in only the past 12 months.

My Lords, can the Minister reassure the House that, in those cases where after further investigation it is discovered that individual students have not cheated nor committed any kind of fraud, they are properly compensated for the fees that they paid, the loss of their courses and a loss of income in employment?

I thank the noble Baroness for making that point. Of course, it will be in the light of the NAO report and the additional advice of the Home Secretary that next steps will be able to be articulated to both Houses.

My Lords, what is being done to change the culture within the Home Office in how it deals with these applications? A number of immigration investigations conducted in the past provide examples of people who were eligible to come to this country having to go through a process which is devised to keep people out. A fundamental change in the way we look at students in this country is required. What is being done to improve on that?

I know the House’s feeling on this subject. I have said many times at this Dispatch Box that there is no cap on the number of international students who can come to this country to study. Going back to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, that matter should not be conflated with the people who will use a route simply to get into this country. Those colleges were therefore rightly closed down under the previous coalition Government. On the culture of the Home Office, I think that it acted rightly in closing down bogus colleges, but we should never lose sight of the contribution made by international students to this country and its education system.