OVER 200 overseas students — including many Indians — have appealed to Prime Minister Boris Johnson for a “free and transparent scheme” to prove their innocence in an English language test scam reported six years ago.
At least 34,000 international students were affected after a cheating scandal hit the Test of English for International Communication (TOEIC) — a mandatory requirement in some student visa cases.
The issue dates back to February 2014, when BBC’s ‘Panorama’ investigation uncovered evidence of organised cheating in two English language test centres run on behalf of the Educational Testing Service (ETS).
This included providing English-speakers to take speaking tests instead of the real candidates and staff reading out multiple choice answers for other tests.
However, many of the students blacklisted in the scandal maintained their innocence, pleading with the UK government for a reconsideration of its punitive actions.
“We were innocent but our visas were refused or revoked and the government gave us no way to defend ourselves,” read the letter submitted at Downing Street on Thursday (24).
“Our futures were destroyed and we were left to fight a years-long legal battle costing each of us tens of thousands of pounds.
“We write to you because it is within your power to right this wrong, to put an end to our detention, deportation and humiliation. Allow us to prove our innocence by establishing a free and transparent scheme – independent of the Home Office – through which we can get our cases to be reviewed and clear our names.”
The blacklisted students also highlighted that that the pandemic had made their “situation even worse”.
“Our support networks have collapsed, the charities we rely on have been closed, our friends and families are unable to help as they are struggling themselves,” the group said.
“We are terrified of catching the virus and being hospitalised, or dying with a black mark still against our names. This is not the future we wanted or worked for.”
Some official reports over the years — including by the National Audit Office and House of Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC) — had flagged “flawed” evidence used by the Home Office against the affected students, and raised concerns over the decision to revoke or refuse tens of thousands of visas.
Migrant Voice activists and several parliamentarians, including Labour MP Stephen Timms, who chairs the all-party parliamentary group on TOEIC, have backed the students’ long-running campaign.
Nazek Ramadan, director of Migrant Voice, said the affected students had been “living a nightmare for six years”.
“Stripped of their rights and their futures destroyed, many are destitute and suffering severe mental health problems,” she added.
“There is a mountain of evidence that proves they are victims of a mammoth injustice – and the government can ignore this no longer.”
Soon after the scandal broke, the Home Office had responded vigorously, investigating colleges, test centres and students, and cancelling thousands of visas.
It maintained that the courts “consistently” found that the evidence it had at the time was sufficient to take action, and that the 2014 probe into the language testing scam had revealed “systemic cheating”.
Last year, the influential PAC issued a harsh rebuke of the government’s handling of the issue.
“The Home Office’s pace of response to the issue of cheating has either been ‘full throttle’ or ‘too slow’, with no middle ground,” noted a report titled ‘English Language Tests: A Systemic Failure Affecting Thousands’.
“It has been quick to act on imperfect evidence, but slow in responding to indications that innocent people may have been caught up in its actions.
“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.”