Home Office revoked tens of thousands of visas using ‘misleading, incomplete and unsafe’ evidence, official report reveals

May Bulman

Tens of thousands of international students had their visas revoked after the Home Office used “confused, misleading, incomplete and unsafe” evidence, MPs have said.

The department ignored expert advice and relied on “dodgy” evidence when it accused almost 34,000 students of cheating in English language tests in 2015, according to a new report published by the all-party parliamentary group (APPG) on the Test of English for International Communication (Toeic).

With no proper right to challenge the decision, these students were told their studies had been terminated and that they had no right to stay in the UK. Some were detained in removal centres, lost their jobs and were left homeless as a result, even though they were in the country legally.

They were targeted after an investigation by the BBC’s Panorama in 2014 exposed systematic cheating at some colleges where candidates sat the Toeic. The test is one of several that overseas students can sit to prove their English language proficiency, a visa requirement.

Based on evidence gathered from affected students, legal experts and technical experts, the report states that Home Office officials themselves had said they were unsure whether the evidence against the students was robust enough to stand up in court.

It asked whether it should be “shored up” or “redone”.

This was after thousands of students had already had action taken against them on the basis of that evidence, but the Home Office ignored the advice of the experts at that meeting and are still refusing to admit publicly that the meeting ever happened, the report states.

The research also casts doubt on evidence from a 2016 report that the Home Office has relied extensively on when taking action against students, which concluded that the proportion of students wrongly accused of cheating was likely less than 1 per cent

Professor Peter French, who wrote this evidence report, told the APPG this figure was correct only if the results given the Home Office by US-based Educational Testing Service (ETS) – whose assessment of cheating has been branded “unsafe and unreliable” – were correct.

One lawyer, who has dealt with around 100 Toeic cases told MPs that the government “pioneered a process that made it as difficult” as possible for those accused of TOEIC fraud to clear their names, leaving them with “no effective remedy”.

The APPG also found that Peter Millington​, a Home Office official who chairs a working group designed to support students impacted by the allegations, had refused to send a letter from members raising concerns about the lack of support being offered, “on the basis that he couldn’t write such a letter to his boss”.

Students who have won their cases are still being denied access to UK education institutions, with their immigration records seen as a threat to the institution’s licence, MPs said.

One of those affected is Asiya Gul Iram, who is now, along with her two daughters, facing being deported to her allegedly abusive husband in Pakistan as a result of the accusation, which she vehemently denies.

Another is Namzul Chowdhury, a Bangladeshi national who is still fighting to clear his name four years after he was accused, and has spent more than £7,000 on legal fees to do so.

Mr Chowdhury has spent four years trying to clear his name (Namzul Chowdhury)

Stephen Timms MP, chair of the APPG on Toeic, said: “One thing that struck me throughout our hearings was that evidence from ETS – the basis for denying visas to thousands of overseas students, often with catastrophic effects – quite simply could not be relied upon.

“Some students have – at great cost – managed to clear their names. However, universities still see them as a risk due to the nature of the allegations made against them. As things stand, and without help from the government, their futures remain bleak. This report sets out crucial steps we believe the government must now take.”

It comes after a National Audit Office (NAO) report released in May found that some of those affected might have been “branded as cheats, lost their course fees, and been removed from the UK without being guilty of cheating or [being given] adequate opportunity to clear their names”.

The watchdog said 2,468 people had been forcibly removed from the UK as a result of the scandal and that the number was continuing to rise, and that a total of 4,157 people accused of cheating had been granted leave to remain, with hundreds more still fighting legal battles.

A Home Office spokesperson said: “The report does not reflect the findings of the courts, who have consistently found that the evidence of fraud was enough for us to take action. As the National Audit Office recently highlighted, the Tier 4 system was subject to widespread abuse in 2014 and almost all those involved in the cheating were linked to private colleges which the Home Office already had significant concerns about.

“The National Audit office was also clear on the scale and organised nature of the abuse, which is demonstrated by the fact that 25 people who facilitated this fraud have received criminal convictions.”