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English language tests: a systemic failure affecting thousands

18 September 2019

  • Home Office designed visa system left open to large-scale abuse
  • Flawed reaction to a systemic failure
  • Revoking of visas before verifying the evidence led to injustice and hardship for many thousands of international students
  • Home Office secured just £1.6 million of compensation from the company at fault despite spending £21 million to deal with the failure


The Home Office's flawed reaction to a systemic failure by a private company has had a detrimental impact on the lives of over 50,000 overseas students the Home Office accused of cheating. Despite being aware of longstanding abuses in the Tier 4 student visa system, the Department designed an English language testing system that failed to recognise the potential incentive for sponsors and students to cheat. The Department appears to have been caught by surprise by the extent of fraud occurring in test centres. The system it designed left it with limited means to seek compensation from ETS Global BV, securing just £1.6 million in compensation for taxpayers, despite spending an estimated £21 million to respond to the cheating.

The Home Office's pace of response to the issue of cheating has either been ‘full throttle' or ‘too slow', with no middle ground. 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. The Home Office's decision to revoke the visas of thousands of individuals before properly verifying evidence provided by ETS has led to injustice and hardship for many people. The Department recognises that hundreds of students maintain their innocence but continues to suggest that there is only a small risk that people have been wrongly caught up in their 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.

Chair's comments

“The Home Office's flawed reaction to a systemic failure by a private company has led to real injustice for many thousands of overseas students taking English Language tests.

“It beggars belief that despite known flaws in the Tier 4 student visa system, the Home Office designed an English language testing system that failed to recognise the potential incentive for cheating. It was then shocked when widespread cheating did take place.

“However, despite the scale of the abuse, many hundreds of people continue to protest their innocence at great personal cost. It is staggering that the Home Office thinks it is acceptable to have so little regard for the impact its actions might have on innocent people.

“And to rub salt into the wounds, short comings in the contractual arrangements the Home Office had with its outsourcing partner meant despite incurring £21m in costs it only recouped £1.6m for the taxpayer – a miniscule sum.”

Conclusions and recommendations

The Home Office's design of the Tier 4 visa system left it open to large-scale abuse. Before 2014, the Department had been aware of issues of abuse within the Tier 4 system for some time and had already started to act on some of these abuses. In 2012 we examined the implementation of the Tier 4 visa system and recommended that the Department should identify and actively manage risks before it implements change. The Department now admits that its decision to use a licensing arrangement to support this system, where ETS Global BV provided a service directly to test-takers and not to the Department, was the “wrong model” and it did not have sufficient oversight over its licence agreement with ETS Global BV. The Department's design of the system failed to recognise the obvious incentives that sponsors and individuals would have to cheat the SELT system. Individuals taking the tests could gain the right to enter and study in the country, providing an opportunity which could then be exploited by criminal organisations. ETS estimates that up to 97% of individuals taking speaking tests conducted in the UK between 2011 and 2014 were suspected of cheating using proxies. The scale of cheating caught the Department off guard, and it failed to respond to intelligence from ETS regarding possible cases of fraud, which had led ETS to remove licences from eight of its test centres. The Department claims that it has learned from these experiences and has improved its licencing system since the cheating claims emerged, but it is not able to identify specific improvements or what impact they had achieved.

Recommendation:  The Home Office should write to the committee immediately to explain what lessons it has learnt and what specific steps it has taken to ensure that such large-scale abuse cannot happen again.

The Home Office rushed to penalise students without establishing whether ETS was involved in fraud or if it had reliable evidence of people cheating. In June 2014, the Department accepted ETS's analysis which identified individuals suspected of cheating within a TOEIC speaking test. Based upon this evidence, it acted swiftly against thousands of individuals by cancelling their visas, refusing pending applications or inviting them for interviews, but it did not conduct a thorough investigation of what had happened or whether the evidence ETS provided was reliable. The Department sent a team of civil servants to the United States in 2014 to gain assurances about ETS's data and its involvement in the cheating but did not ensure that the team had specific expertise or experience in linguistics or relevant technology. The Department only sought expert opinion and assurance two years after it began acting against individuals whom it suspected of cheating.      

Recommendation:  The Home Office should, within three months of this report, write to the Committee with evidence of its assessment from 2014 that ETS were not criminally complicit.

The Home Office's commercial relationship with ETS meant it had insufficient recourse to claim compensation. The Department estimates that it has spent £21 million in responding to the testing fraud. But it has only been able to secure compensation worth £1.6 million from ETS Global BV for its involvement in the fraud. The Department's licensing model for its Secure English Language Test providers meant it had limited capacity to seek any guarantees of compensation from those providers in the case of any irregularities. The Department has not adequately tracked the costs that it has incurred in addressing the fraud, or the resources that it has allocated to its Gold Command team in response to TOEIC cheating. The Department now recognises that it needs to improve the selection and management of its outsourcing partners. Its decision to use a licensing model was a mistake and the Department has committed to ensuring that its future agreements with private companies should include a redress mechanism in the event of contractor failure. The involvement of two overseas companies further complicated its ability to secure compensation.   

Recommendation:  The Home Office should, within six months of this report, review its arrangement with overseas partners, including redress mechanisms in the event of contractor failure, and write to the Committee with its results.

It is entirely unacceptable that, despite now recognising that hundreds of people still maintain their innocence, the Home Office has not acted to put right the wrongs caused by its actions. The Department has consistently argued that there was only a “very small” risk that its actions would affect innocent people and claims that it is concerned that hundreds of people continue to maintain their innocence. However, the Department has taken no action to proactively identify innocent people. Those who are affected by the Department's action against them can go through the courts to try to demonstrate their innocence. But this can have a substantial financial and personal cost for those involved. Individuals also face several barriers in gaining access to the evidence that they need to demonstrate their innocence, such as the cost of conducting an appeal or the unavailability of their voice recordings from ETS. Many also still face difficulties finding a new sponsoring college or university even after winning their appeals. It is shameful that the Department knows it could have acted against innocent people but has not established a clear mechanism for them to raise concerns outside of the appeals process. We are encouraged that the Home Secretary has committed to looking at other options for people who feel they have been wronged to respond to accusations, and we await further statements on this subject.    

Recommendation:  The Home Office should, within three months of this report, create and promote a fair and trustworthy means of helping all individuals who may have been wrongly accused to come forward and clear their names, including ensuring that all evidence from ETS is made available to them.

As with the Windrush scandal, the Home Office has once again not done enough to identify the innocent and potentially vulnerable people who have been affected. During our evidence session, the Department admitted publicly for the first time that it was concerned that hundreds of innocent people continue to maintain their innocence, but it has not investigated this sufficiently. The Department has made no effort to identify individuals who have been wrongly accused. It justifies its position based on the evidence provided by ETS, the expert assurance it received in 2016 and the availability of the courts as a potential remedy. The Department relied solely upon the generic evidence provided by ETS and waited over two years to get any independent expert assurance on the methods ETS used to demonstrate cheating. The Department was willing to accept the evidence of ETS at face value, but it has not accepted additional evidence from those it has accused of cheating except through the appeals process. It has not investigated contradictory evidence despite concerns that the National Union of Students and our sister Committee the Home Affairs Select Committee have raised and the number of appeals that individuals lodged against the Department's actions. 

Recommendation:  The Home Office should address its lack of curiosity and establish safeguards to protect innocent people in the future, including ensuring that senior leadership do more to promote a culture of curiosity.

Further information

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