English test scandal: students and campaigners call on PM to end years of limbo

<span>Photograph: Hannah McKay/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Hannah McKay/Reuters

A group of international students and campaigners are calling on the prime minister to end their years of living in limbo after accusations of cheating in English language tests.

The students had their visas revoked almost 10 years ago after a BBC Panorama documentary reported allegations of cheating at two of the UK’s language testing centres for international students.

As a result of the 2014 programme the government responded with a blanket revocation of tens of thousands of students’ visas overnight, although the Home Office was later accused of presiding over a “shocking miscarriage of justice” by MPs in doing so.

Students were immediately thrown out of their universities, and with no right to stay, work or in a few cases to appeal, many of the accused students returned home.

The students are now calling on Rishi Sunak to help them by providing a way for them to clear their names. They are presenting a petition to Downing Street on Tuesday afternoon.

According to the organisation Migrant Voice, which is supporting them, those who stayed to try to clear their names have struggled with homelessness, huge legal fees, stress-induced illnesses and have missed family weddings, births and deaths. Judges and parliamentary and watchdog reports have highlighted flaws in the evidence of cheating. Although some students have won their cases, others remain in limbo.

Many of the students affected are Indian. They include a 46-year-old-woman who has been separated from her children for more than a decade because her community say she cannot return home while the cheating allegations hang over her, and a man who is being sued by the company that sponsored him to come to the UK.

The students are calling for:

  • A simple, free mechanism for students to apply for a decision or reconsideration of their case.

  • The immigration record of every student cleared of cheating to be wiped clean.

  • Facilitate students’ return to study, or support those on work or entrepreneur visas to find new jobs or restart their businesses – by removing barriers created by the cheating allegations.

The 2014 Panorama cheating report focused on an English language test known as TOEIC at two London test centres used by some international students. The UK government asked Educational Testing Service (ETS), the company that ran the test at 96 test centres, to investigate the allegations.

As a result of the investigation by ETS, the Home Office abruptly terminated the visas of more than 34,000 overseas students, making their presence in the UK illegal overnight. A further 22,000 were told that their test results were “questionable”.

A 2019 report by the Public Accounts Committee found that the Home Office “rushed to penalise” international students accused of cheating in English language tests without establishing whether ETS was involved in fraud or if it had reliable evidence.

It compared the way the department treated more than 30,000 international students accused of breaking the rules of the test to the Windrush scandal.

The report said: “It is entirely unacceptable that, despite now recognising that hundreds of people maintain their innocence the Home Office has not acted to put right the wrongs caused by its actions.”

Nazek Ramadan, director of Migrant Voice, said: “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. 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.”

The Home Office has been approached for comment.