Treatment of innocent students in cheating scandal ‘staggering’, say MPs

Committee compares Home Office attitude in ETS crackdown to Windrush scandal

September 18, 2019
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A committee of MPs says that it is “staggered” that the Home Office had “so little regard” for the plight of innocent students caught up in the crackdown that followed an English language test cheating scandal.

The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) says that the department relied too much on “imperfect evidence” that led to about 50,000 students being implicated in widespread fraud at test centres conducting exams for the Education Testing Service (ETS).

In total, more than 11,000 people have voluntarily left the UK since the crackdown – which started while former prime minister Theresa May was home secretary – while almost 3,000 have been forced to leave or refused reentry. However, “hundreds, possibly thousands, continue to protest their innocence”, the PAC report says.

The decision about which students should face action was based on information provided by ETS, which used voice recognition software to try to establish which students may have paid other people to sit the test, a core part of the fraud exposed by a BBC Panorama investigation in 2014.

Although the Home Office “acted swiftly” against the individuals identified, the PAC report says, “it did not conduct a thorough investigation of what had happened or whether the evidence ETS provided was reliable”.

It has called on the department to set up a “fair and trustworthy” way for all those claiming to have been wrongly accused to be able to clear their names without having to go through the courts.

The committee compares the situation to the Windrush scandal, where people who had moved to the UK from the Commonwealth decades ago were wrongly accused of being illegal immigrants, saying that the Home Office had “made no effort” to identify which students were innocent.

This was despite the courts hearing 12,500 appeals involving students accused of cheating with 40 per cent winning their cases at the first tier of the tribunal process.

“The Department recognises that hundreds of students maintain their innocence but continues to suggest that there is only a small risk that people have been wrongly caught up in their actions,” the committee’s report says.

“We are staggered that the Department thinks it is acceptable to have so little regard for the impact its actions might have on innocent people.”

As well as its failure to help potentially innocent students, the report also criticises the design of the student visa system at the time and the commercial relationship that the Home Office had with ETS, which was under licence to provide the tests.

Since the scandal, the Home Office is estimated to have spent £21 million on dealing with the fallout from the fraud but has only won £1.6 million in compensation from ETS, according to a National Audit Office report that preceded the PAC inquiry.

Labour MP Meg Hillier, chair of the committee, said: “It beggars belief that despite known flaws in the Tier 4 student visa system, the Home Office designed an English language testing system that failed to recognise the potential incentive for cheating. It was then shocked when widespread cheating did take place.

“However, despite the scale of the abuse, many hundreds of people continue to protest their innocence at great personal cost.”

A total of 31 defendants from six organised crime groups have stood trial and 25 have been convicted over the fraud, according to the NAO report.

simon.baker@timeshighereducation.com

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