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EEA Nationals and the TOEIC test

Part of Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:45 pm on 5th March 2019.

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Photo of Kate Green Kate Green Chair, Committee on Standards, Chair, Committee of Privileges, Chair, Committee of Privileges, Chair, Committee on Standards, Chair, Committee on Standards 2:45 pm, 5th March 2019

I beg to move that the clause be read a Second time. I do so on behalf of my right hon. Friend Stephen Timms, who is not a member of this Committee but who has been particularly active on this issue, along with other colleagues.

This new clause relates to the testing of foreign national students in English proficiency. In 2011, the Home Office gave a licence to the US firm ETS to operate an English language test—the Test of English for International Communication or TOEIC—that was widely used to assess whether the English-language capabilities of overseas students were sufficient for them to study in the UK.

In February 2014, the BBC “Panorama” programme exposed cheating on a significant scale on the TOEIC test. Test centres were facilitating proxies to take the test, allowing students with poor English to obtain a pass certificate. ETS responded to this exposé by under- taking analysis, using voice-recognition software of the recordings of all those who had taken the TOEIC test in order to study in the UK. They reported to the Home Office that, of 58,458 candidates who took the test in the UK between 2011 and 2014, 33,725 had definitely cheated and 22,694 probably had. Only 2,039 candidates were given the all-clear.

The Home Office responded by cancelling the visas of many of those ETS claimed had definitely cheated. Their colleges were required to expel them from their courses and, of the 22,694 students that ETS claimed had probably cheated, the Home Office stated that none had action taken against them without first being given the opportunity to resit a test with a different provider. Up to the end of 2016, the Home Office published data on its response to the ETS allegations. By the end of that year, there were more than 35,870 refusal, curtailment and removal decisions made in respect of ETS-linked cases. There were more than 4,600 removals and departures in respect of ETS-linked cases. These figures suggest that a significant number of those who lost their visas as a result of ETS allegations are still in the UK, but nobody knows how many. One estimate is that at least 2,000 are still here.

No in-country appeals were available to those accused of cheating, but some of those affected have managed to get their cases before the UK courts. In a growing number of cases, they have been able to convince the courts that they did not, in fact, cheat. In one case, the appellant showed that he never even took a TOEIC test.

ETS’s evidence has not stood up well to the scrutiny it has received in these cases and was described by one computer expert as worthless. It has proven extremely difficult for students to obtain from ETS the recordings alleged to be of them taking the test and ETS’s records, for example of where the test was taken, have proven unreliable. It is also clear that many of those affected can speak excellent English and some have passed comparable tests with other providers. This is the regime that EEA national students will be subject to in future.

The students whose visas were summarily cancelled have been left in a terrible plight. They were thrown off their courses and were not entitled to any refund of the fees they had paid. They are not permitted to study or work in the UK, and many are dependent on support from friends. In some cases, they have invested their family’s life savings in obtaining a British degree. Now the savings have gone, they have no qualification and face destitution. Many say they could not endure the shame of returning to their home country with nothing to show for their efforts and having been apparently convicted by UK authorities of having cheated. At a meeting in the House of Commons attended by some 50 TOEIC victims recently, it was claimed that all suffer mental health problems.

The student who never took a test, but nevertheless had his visa cancelled on the grounds that he cheated, had completed an MBA course at the University of West London, subject to having to pass two resits. When the Home Office refused his visa renewal on TOEIC grounds, the university withdrew him. He had paid more than £10,000 in fees for the course and has since spent £5,000 on legal costs to win his appeal.

The Upper Tribunal judges concluded, however, that the Home Secretary had not shown that that claimant had used deception in relying on an ETS TOEIC English language test. In reconsidering the application, the Home Office refused it again, apparently still taking the view that the student had cheated. A further appeal is due to be heard in May. The student is being supported financially by his wife, who also lost her visa following an allegation of cheating in TOEIC. She works 10 hours a day, seven days a week, renting a chair as a self-employed beauty therapist in Peckham.