Thursday 6 September 2018 12:58 AM UTC
London Sept 6: British parliamentarians have demanded an independent inquiry into the “forgotten scandal” of thousands of international students, including Indians, being accused of cheating by the UK government in an English language examination.
In a parliamentary debate at Westminster Hall on Tuesday, Labour Member of Parliament P Gareth Thomas said that given the seriousness of the issue, the “scandal merits a proper, thorough independent inquiry”.
“I strongly agree. In fact an independent inquiry is necessary,” added Wes Streeting, the Labour MP who had called the debate, which was attended by Indian-origin Labour MP Seema Malhotra among others.
Terming the incident as “social injustice” which happened under the “government’s watch”, Malhotra said the entire episode hit the reputation of the students’ families.
She said the incident led to depression and affected whole families, including children, and demanded an “extensive apology and potential compensation”.
The MPs also called on the UK Home Office to allow students, who claim to be wrongly accused, to re-sit the exam to prove their innocence.
Streeting categorised the issue as worse than the UK’s recent Windrush scandal involving largely Caribbean-origin migrants being wrongfully deported from the UK.
“I am not the first to compare the dreadful mishandling of the TOEIC (Test of English for International Communication) cases to the scandalous mistreatment of the Windrush generation,” he said.
“Our constituents undertook tests run by the Educational Testing Service (ETS), a body approved and licenced by the Home Office. They should not be punished for doing something like that. It is shameful and unacceptable that this is going on,” he added.
Scottish National Party (SNP) MP Martyn Day highlighted the case at a personal level and described how his Indian partner, Nadia, had been caught up in the scandal despite having perfect English.
“When she was interviewed by an immigration officer, he said that her English was as good as his. It might even be better than mine. She clearly understands English and speaks it well.
She often corrects my grammar when she gets advance sight of my press releases and speeches,” Day said, adding that the rapid fall in Indian students coming to study at UK universities is linked to the scandal.
“Most of the students affected are from Bangladesh, India and Pakistan, and I wonder what the lasting reputational damage to the UK will be. It can be no surprise I think there is definitely a connection that the number of student applications from India is barely a third of what is was before this situation arose,” he said.
The issue dates back to 2014, when the BBC aired an investigation into colleges offering TOEIC exams and revealed some cases of cheating.
The UK Home Office responded by launching its own investigation and concluded that 33,725 of the test results were invalid and 22,694 questionable.
Those with questionable results were given the chance to re-sit a test or attend an interview before action was taken against them but the others were made to abandon their courses and, in many cases, forced to return to their countries of origin.
UK-based charity Migrant Voice recently released a report entitled ‘I want my future back’ based on experiences of people affected by the investigation, having arrived in the UK between 2004 and 2011.
According to its estimates, nearly 56,000 students have been caught up in the scandal and had also called on the Home Office to allow these students to re-sit exams to be able to clear their name.
Britain’s immigration minister, Caroline Nokes, admitted that “innocent applicants may well have been caught up in widespread fraud” but dismissed the idea of an independent inquiry.
“It is important that we recognise that there was significant, widespread and indeed very lucrative fraud taking place in these cases. Our enforcement investigations uncovered evidence of impersonation and of proxy test-takers,” she said.
“We know that the number of overseas students applying for Tier 4 (student) visas is up and there has been an increase in the number of visas granted, including 9 per cent more from Chinese nationals and 32 per cent more from Indian nationals. The UK remains an attractive place for foreign students to come to,” the minister added.
Streeting described the government response to the parliamentary debate this week as “deeply disappointing” and called for a “detailed meeting” to find a resolution.
The issue centres around the requirement by some UK visa applicants to pass a test of proficiency in written and spoken English.
One of the approved tests, TOEIC, was provided by US-based ETS at a large number of test centres across Britain. The spoken English part of the test involves the candidate being recorded reading a text, with the recording then being sent to an ETS assessor for marking.
After the BBC exposed some cheating on these tests, the Home Office instructed ETS to use voice recognition software to check test recordings from the test centres in question. On the basis of ETS’ information, the Home Office took the decision to revoke many of the visas.
While the Home Office insists any “false matches” emanating from the voice recognition software was very small, campaigners have claimed that this figure is in fact very large.
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