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All-Party Parliamentary Group on TOEIC concludes evidence used to accuse students of cheating was misleading and unsafe


Report published following inquiry into TOEIC scandal which affected tens of thousands of students

Date of Publication:
22 July 2019

All-Party Parliamentary Group on TOEIC concludes evidence used to accuse students of cheating was misleading and unsafe

22 July 2019

The All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on TOEIC last week released its report examining the allegations of cheating in TOEIC English-language tests that saw thousands of international students removed by the Home Office.

You can read the APPG's 35-page report here.

The APPG held an inquiry to investigate the "TOEIC scandal" which began in 2014 after an episode of the BBC's Panorama revealed cheating by some international students in TOEIC tests. Using evidence from the US firm ETS, the Home Office subsequently accused over 33,000 students of cheating and more than 2,400 were deported.

The headline finding from the APPG's inquiry is that the evidence of cheating used against the students was "confused, misleading, incomplete and unsafe".

Stephen Timms MP, the Chair of the APPG on TOEIC, said: "One thing that struck me throughout our hearings was that evidence from ETS – the basis for denying visas to thousands of overseas students, often with catastrophic effects – quite simply could not be relied upon. The inquiry concluded that the evidence used against the students was confused, misleading, incomplete and unsafe."

Nazek Ramadan, Director of Migrant Voice, said: "This report reveals shocking new evidence that the Home Office ignored expert advice, relied on dodgy evidence and took action against students they claimed were treated fairly – and that the Department continues to cover up the full extent of those blunders."

The report provides the following key findings:

"1. Fundamental flaws in the evidence: All the experts agreed that the evidence provided by ETS to the Home Office is questionable, and all bar one agreed that it contains fundamental flaws that should make it impossible to take decisions based on this evidence alone. Yet this is what the Home Office has done, disregarding huge numbers of anomalies and the lack of proof that links each recording to the person who sat that test ("lack of continuity of the evidence"). All three students who gave evidence spoke about fundamental factual errors in the Home Office evidence against them.

"2. 'Questionable' students not given chance to sit new test: The Home Office has repeatedly insisted that 'questionable' students had no action taken against them without being offered the chance to sit a new test. But, according to evidence given to the APPG, thousands of questionable students were likely removed from their courses and the country in 2014 without that chance. Lists of students accused of definitely or likely cheating on TOEIC that were sent by the Home Office to the institutions where they were enrolled allegedly did not distinguish between 'questionable' and 'invalid' students. Most institutions, fearful of losing their licence, withdrew all students on the list, leaving them vulnerable to removal by the Home Office. In response to pressure from the National Union of Students to allow the 'questionable' students to sit a new test, the Home Office flatly refused.

"3. Home Office consulted experts confidentially in 2014 but ignored their advice: In August 2014, after thousands of students had already had action taken against them, the Home Office convened a confidential meeting of experts, which included voice recognition expert Professor Peter French. At that meeting, Home Office officials disclosed that they were unsure whether the evidence was robust enough to stand up in court and asked the experts whether it should be "shored up" or "redone". What is clear from this is that the Home Office was content to use evidence that they suspected was not reliable to revoke the visas of tens of thousands of students and forcibly remove thousands from the country. Despite every expert at that meeting requesting more information in order to reliably assess the evidence, Professor French heard nothing more from the Home Office until February 2016. As of July 2019, Home Office officials are still refusing to admit publicly that the August 2014 meeting ever happened.

"4. Cornerstone of Government position undermined by expert who wrote it: The Home Office has relied extensively on a 2016 report by Professor Peter French, which concluded that the rate of "false positives" (individuals wrongly identified as having cheated) in the ETS checking process would be less than 1%. However, in evidence to the APPG, French stressed that his conclusion was only correct "if the results that ETS had given the Home Office were correct". As explained in (1) above, all of the experts questioned the reliability of those results, casting significant doubt on the usefulness of that statistic, used so heavily by the Home Office in their defence. French also cautioned against using his conclusion to argue that any particular student cheated, an approach the Home Office has used consistently.

"5. Home Office group established to support students failed: The Sponsorship Working Group (SWG), established by the Home Office to support students at institutions whose licences were revoked due to the TOEIC issue, was not chaired independently, but instead by Home Office official Peter Millington, the same man who was part of the delegation to ETS in June 2014 and whose witness statement has been used by the Home Office in every TOEIC case. Many members of the SWG were angry at the way the group was run and the lack of support offered to the students and wrote a letter to the Home Secretary to express this. But Peter Millington refused to sign and send the letter "on the basis that he couldn't write such a letter to his boss". So the concerns were never addressed.

"6. Home Office failure to look at anomalies in the evidence: Despite mounting evidence of a large number of anomalies in the ETS data and in individual cases, the Home Office has failed to investigate. One student accused of cheating remembers that a Home Office official was present in the room when he sat his test, but the Home Office has ignored the obvious implications of this and refused to drop the allegation.

"7. ETS is 'a shambles': A number of experts gave evidence regarding the administrative chaos at ETS (such as students receiving three or four tracking numbers through the process of booking, sitting and passing a TOEIC test) and the lack of any measures to check if tests were being run correctly. One expert described the company as "a shambles".

"8. Students prevented from challenging the allegation: According to one lawyer – who has dealt with around 100 TOEIC cases – the Government "pioneered a process that made it as difficult" as possible for those accused of TOEIC fraud to clear their names, said Barrister Michael Biggs. They were left with "no effective remedy". A second lawyer, who has worked in immigration law since 1992, described the TOEIC cases as "exceptional" in the lack of real remedy.

"9. Students who have won appeals denied access to education: Students who have won their cases are still being denied access to UK education institutions, with rulings in their favour not regarded as "clear judgements" and their immigration records seen as a threat to the institution's licence. At least one university has also refused help to a former student wrongly accused of cheating on the basis that to do so would be a threat to their licence.

"10. Financial, emotional and family ruin for the students: The three students spoke movingly about the impact of the allegation on their lives. One student described the accusation as a "cancer" that hasn't only damaged him, but also his whole family."

In the report, the APPG on TOEIC makes seven recommendations to the Government to address the findings of its inquiry, including that students should be able to sit new tests and the immigration record of anyone passing should be cleared of the previous cheating allegations.

Stephen Timms said: "Some students have – at great cost – managed to clear their names. However, universities still see them as a risk due to the nature of the allegations made against them. As things stand, and without help from the Government, their futures remain bleak. This report sets out crucial steps we believe the Government must now take."

In response to the report, a Home Office spokesperson told The Independent: "The report does not reflect the findings of the courts, who have consistently found that the evidence of fraud was enough for us to take action. As the National Audit Office recently highlighted, the Tier 4 system was subject to widespread abuse in 2014 and almost all those involved in the cheating were linked to private colleges which the Home Office already had significant concerns about.

"The National Audit office was also clear on the scale and organised nature of the abuse, which is demonstrated by the fact that 25 people who facilitated this fraud have received criminal convictions."