Test centres operated on behalf of the Educational Testing Service were the subject of a BBC “Panorama” programme in February 2014 that aired footage of the systematic cheating in English language tests at a number of its UK test centres. Further investigation demonstrated just how widespread this was, and the scale is shown by the fact that 25 people involved in organising and facilitating language test fraud have received criminal convictions. They have been sentenced to a total of over 70 years’ imprisonment, and further criminal investigations are ongoing.
There was also a strong link to wider abuse of the student visa route. A National Audit Office report in 2012 made it clear that abuse of that route was rife and estimated that in 2009—its first year of operation—up to 50,000 people used the tier 4 student route to work, not study. Most students who were linked to this fraud were sponsored by private colleges, many of which the Home Office had significant concerns about before the BBC investigation. Indeed, 400 colleges that had sponsored students linked to the ETS had already had their licences revoked before 2014.
Over the course of 2014, the ETS systematically analysed all tests taken in the UK dating back to 2011—more than 58,000 tests. Analysis of the test results identified 33,725 invalid results and 22,694 questionable results. Those with questionable results were given the chance to re-sit a test or attend an interview before any action was taken. People who used invalid ETS certificates to obtain immigration leave have had action taken against them.
The courts have consistently found that the evidence for invalid cases created a reasonable suspicion of fraud and was enough for the Home Office to act upon. It is then up to individuals to refute this, either through appeals or judicial reviews. Despite this, concerns have been expressed about whether innocent people could have been caught up in this. The Home Secretary has listened to the apprehensions of some Members, including Stephen Timms, and has asked officials for further advice. The National Audit Office is also currently in the process of concluding an investigation into the handling of these issues, and this is expected to be published next month. Obviously, the Home Secretary has taken a close interest in the issue and will be reviewing the conclusions of the National Audit Office, and he will make a statement to the House once he has had time to consider the matter in full.