British government under scrutiny over treatment of students in Toeic test scandal

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International students accused by the Home Office of cheating in Toeic English tests demonstrate in Parliament Square in January 2019.

The UK Parliament’s watchdog, the National Audit Office (NAO), has criticised the UK government for its handling of the cases of thousands of international students caught up in the Toeic English test scandal in 2014. Following the scandal, immigration authorities revoked the visas of 34,000 students, forcibly deporting more than 2,500.

The NAO report found the government had failed to protect “those who did not cheat but who were still caught up in the process.”

The Home Office faces more than 300 appeals court challenges from students, most from South Asia, who believe they were wrongly accused of cheating. Until 2017, UK immigration rules meant that affected students had to return home before they could appeal their case. These regulations were overruled by the court, leading to hundreds of students being stranded in the UK for up to five years while they brought their cases to court.

The Guardian newspaper reports that a special Home Office team has been set up to deal with the backlog of legal actions.

A 2014 BBC documentary found evidence of some test centres helping students to cheat in the exams. British MPs, however, have expressed “grave concern” that so many candidates who sat the test between 2011 and 2014 were then accused of cheating. American exam board ETS, who created and administered the exams, told the government analysts that its voice recognition software suggested that, over a five-year period, more than 50,000 students had cheated. However, an appeals Court ruling in 2016, which ETS failed to attend, dismissed this evidence as ‘hearsay’.

The government, however, continued to pursue some 36,000 students it believed to have cheated, detaining many and deporting more than 2,500.

Students who found the money to appeal have discovered that the Home Office’s grounds for revoking their visas have been “insubstantial.” Patrick Lewis, a barrister who has won all but one of the 15 cases he’s fought, said judges had “real concerns about the quality of evidence” produced by the Home Office.

The Guardian interviewed student Raja Noman Hussein, who said that while he was in immigration detention, “Every day I met three or four new people who were being detained because of Toeic.” Testtakers stripped of their student visas have been represented by the charity Migrant Voice, whose director Nazek Ramadan said that, “many of the students are destitute and suffering from severe mental health problems.”

Stephen Timms MP, who has represented many of the students, called on the Home Office to allow students to sit another English test so they could resume their studies.

MPs have compared the Toeic affair to last year’s Windrush scandal, in which at least 83 Afro- Caribbean British citizens were wrongly deported. Compensation for the victims of that affair is estimated at around £200 million.

Image courtesy of Migrant Voice