The Home Office may have unfairly deported students who were wrongly accused of cheating in English language tests, the National Audit Office has said.
In a report published today, the watchdog said the Home Office had failed to protect students who were unfairly caught up in a scandal that erupted in 2014 when a BBC Panorama investigation uncovered systemic cheating on English language tests needed to support visa applications.
Since April 2014, 2,500 foreign nationals have been forcibly removed from the country after being accused of cheating on the Test of English for International Communication, which up to that point had been used to prove visa applicants had the level of English needed to study in the UK. A further 400 people have been refused re-entry to the UK, the NAO report said.
Altogether some 11,000 people have left the UK as of March this year, according to the NAO, although some people may have left for reasons not related to allegations of deception in TOEIC tests. The NAO said its estimate that 7,200 who have left voluntarily "may be an underestimate”.
However, thousands of people accused of cheating on the test have since won the right to stay in the UK. Among them are 4,157 people whose exam results were invalidated following an investigation by the test provider, ETS, but have since been granted leave to remain, including 477 who are now British citizens.
More than a quarter of people who have appealed immigration decisions related to the scandal have won their cases, with around 3,600 of 12,500 appeals successful.
Sir Amyas Morse, head of the NAO, said that when the Home Office “acted vigorously to exclude individuals and shut down colleges involved… we think they should have taken an equally vigorous approach to protecting those who did not cheat but who were still caught up in the process, however small a proportion they might be.
“This did not happen.”
According to the report, the Home Office has not tracked the reasons why people accused of cheating have been allowed to stay. Some had managed to disprove the allegations of cheating, while others had won appeals on human rights grounds, the NAO said.
The Home Office took action after Panorama recorded substitutes at a test centre in London sitting a TOEIC exam on behalf of students who had paid them to cheat. In June 2014 then-immigration minister James Brokenshire announced that as many as 45,000 students may have fraudulently obtained TOEIC certificates.
But the NAO said that the Home Office had taken that figure from the test provider, ETS, without independently verifying the data.
In an internal investigation, ETS had used voice-recognition technology to identify when students had cheated by getting someone else to sit the test for them.
The investigation concluded that 97% of the 58,459 tests taken in the UK between 2011 and 2014 had “suspicious” results. It classified 58% of UK tests as “invalid” and 39% as “questionable”.
The Home Office did not have the expertise needed to validate these results and did not initially attempt to do so by getting an expert opinion, according to the NAO.
But although it allowed students with a “questionable” result to retake the test, it began cutting visas short for those attributed an “invalid” result.
There have been “competing views of the validity of the technology” used to identify cheating, the NAO report said. An independent expert appointed by the Home Office later concluded that the error rate would be “significantly less than 1%”, a calculation the NAO said was based on a series of assumptions about the technology and assessors’ performance.
“The expert’s evidence backs up ETS’s overall assessment of widespread cheating, but neither proves definitively that an individual’s test was invalid,” the report said.
An earlier analysis by an expert commissioned by the National Union of Students suggested there had been a higher error rate of up to 20% of cases assessed by the ETS software and 30% of those assessed by a human.
The NAO report also noted that some of the people whose results were declared invalid did not achieve a high enough score to enable them to study in the UK.
“It was not possible for the Home Office to directly check ETS’s assessments of cheating. Some appeals challenged the handling of data by ETS and the test centres, particularly because some centres were run by criminals,” the watchdog said.
“People have been able to get hold of ETS voice recordings used in voice recognition checks but not the original audio recordings, although this evidence has stood up to challenge in criminal trials.”
A Home Office spokesperson said the reported highlighed "widespread abuse" in the student visa system in 2014”.
They added: “The report is 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.”