How thousands of foreign students were failed by the Home Office
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When Wahidur Rahman was growing up in Sylhet, Bangladesh, in the early 2000s, he studied English diligently. He learnt the language at primary school, took several subjects in English at high school and then chose to take English-medium degrees at college and university.
Later, when he wanted to study in the UK, he passed an approved language test, the International English Language Testing System (Ielts), easily. He passed it again a few years later, with a similarly high mark. He speaks the language almost perfectly, with punctiliously correct grammar.
“I can clearly remember my friends wanted to watch Hindi movies,” Rahman says, sitting in a Bangladeshi restaurant in Whitechapel, east London, where he now lives. “I wanted to watch English movies, just to learn English.”
Yet Rahman’s fluency has done nothing to ward off a damaging accusation from the UK’s Home Office. Officials at the department, which oversees immigration, are convinced that Rahman cheated in 2012 when taking a second English language test, the Test of English for International Communication (Toeic).
Since 2011, vast numbers of people have had to complete such tests every two years to renew their visas. The Home Office says that between 2011 and 2014, Rahman and tens of thousands of other people — mainly students but also business people and other immigrants from non-English-speaking countries outside the EU — illegally paid proxies to take the Toeic test for them.
The 2014 accusation against Rahman rested on a single audio clip that Educational Testing Service, the New Jersey-based company that set the test, turned up in a trawl of its records. ETS said the clip showed that someone other than Rahman took the spoken element of the exam, which also includes reading, writing and listening sections. The Home Office forced Anglia Ruskin University, where he had been studying, to throw him off his course. The accusation has cost him a total of £25,000, he says, in wasted tuition fees and in legal fees to fight the Home Office’s efforts to send him home in disgrace.
“At the time I had the accusation, I was 24,” Rahman says. “Now I’m 29. That’s the prime time of someone’s life to navigate where you go. At that time, I’ve been struggling to cross my name out of this allegation. At the time we’re supposed to make our life, we’re struggling with this.”
Supporters of those accused of cheating in Toeic see the accusations as part of a pattern of unreasonable, harsh behaviour towards immigrants by the Home Office that has generated a string of scandals, the most notorious of which is the wrongful treatment of the Windrush generation of immigrants who arrived from the Caribbean and other parts of the Commonwealth after the second world war. The episodes stem from a range of measures known as the “hostile environment”, mostly introduced when Theresa May, now prime minister, was home secretary. The aim was to make life so intolerable for those whose immigration applications were turned down that they would leave the country.
As a result of the hostile environment, Rahman and many others fighting immigration appeals are stripped not only of the right to study but also to work, to rent accommodation, to drive, have a bank account or use the National Health Service. The approach has also blocked the most direct avenues for Rahman and many other rejected applicants to challenge Home Office rulings. Legal aid has been withdrawn from nearly all immigration cases.
Nazek Ramadan, director of Migrant Voice, an immigrant-support charity that is one of the accused’s most vocal supporters, says their treatment has been so unjust that she originally found it hard to believe. “It didn’t sound real to me,” says Ramadan, herself a refugee from Lebanon, during a meeting at her group’s north London offices. “I said, ‘This cannot be happening in the UK.’ ”
When she finally met many of the accused, she was shocked by their stories. Some told her they had lost sums as high as £120,000 in legal bills and wasted tuition fees. Large numbers are struggling with depression and other health problems. Many are estranged from families who have put up a substantial proportion of their wealth to fund their educations. “This experience shook me,” Ramadan says of dealing with the affair. “I’m questioning, ‘Is this really a democracy? Is this fairness, justice?’ ”
A single target may underlie many of the problems. In the 2010 Conservative manifesto, David Cameron pledged to bring net migration down to “tens of thousands a year, not hundreds of thousands”. That target has never come close to being hit — in the year to June 2018, net migration was 273,000. Chai Patel, legal and policy director of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, believes it distorted decision-making. “From the point of view of the Home Office, a refusal [of an immigration application] is better than any other decision — even if another decision would be correct,” Patel says.
The amount Wahidur Rahman says he has lost in legal bills and wasted tuition fees after he was accused of cheating by the Home Office
Since stories in the Financial Times last year, the Home Office has admitted that it unlawfully demanded DNA samples from hundreds of families to prove they were genuinely related to each other. In November, the department accepted that it had wrongly sought to withdraw the visas of a small number of non-UK entrepreneurs who it had accused of dishonesty after they made sometimes very small adjustments to their tax declarations for previous years. Patel says the cases reflect an institutional bias in favour of rejecting even perfectly proper immigration claims.
Those who have monitored developments in the Toeic affair think it reveals problems at least as grave as those in the better-known cases. The Home Office has revoked the visas of nearly 36,000 alleged cheats, even though lawyers and forensic experts have identified comprehensive shortcomings in the evidence. Stephen Timms and Martyn Day, two MPs campaigning for those facing unjust accusations, say the Home Office will eventually have to admit serious failings over the issue. Timms, the Labour MP for East Ham in east London, says the scale of the issue is “enormous” and treatment of the accused has run “contrary to all principles of natural justice”.
“The lives of those people who have been the victims of it have been completely messed up on the flimsiest of grounds,” he says. “It’s quite clear to me and other MPs who have spoken to their constituents that quite a lot of them did not cheat at all, are mortified to have been accused of cheating and they have not been allowed to make their case.”
Day, the Scottish National party MP for Linlithgow and East Falkirk, says he first encountered the “crazy” affair when a constituent from South Africa told him he faced accusations of using a proxy despite being a native English speaker. Day is in a relationship with Nidhin Chand, from Kerala, in south India, who also says she has been wrongly accused of Toeic cheating. “You don’t expect the system to be so incompetent,” Day says.
The Home Office denies systematic mistakes in the Toeic cases. It says investigations in 2014 revealed “systemic cheating”, which was indicative of “significant organised fraud”. It points to the fact that more than 20 people were convicted of cheating and received prison sentences totalling 68 years. “We welcome genuine international students and there is no limit on the number who can come to study in the UK,” the department says.
The premises once occupied by Eden College International, on east London’s Mile End Road, are a reminder that there was undoubtedly wrongdoing at the start of the affair. The building, which now lies empty, its gates locked and grass growing between its paving stones, was the setting for some of the most shocking scenes in a BBC Panorama programme on Toeic cheating that was broadcast in February 2014.
Surreptitiously filmed video showed invigilators at the written element of a test reading out answers. For the spoken part, video showed proxy test-takers entering the room to sit the test on behalf of people who had paid extra for the fraudulent help. In one scene, Theresa May is shown footage of the cheating, declaring it “very shocking”. Mohammed Hasan, a member of Eden College’s staff, was one of those convicted over the fraud.
Stephen Timms accepts there were cheats. “I have no objection at all to their visas being cancelled,” he says. Yet the crackdown that followed went well beyond the small numbers of test sites and candidates where there was clear evidence of wrongdoing. The Home Office, which banned ETS from administering further tests, told the company to re-examine records of all 58,458 of its exams taken in the UK between 2011 and 2014. ETS used voice-recognition software to seek out tests that seemed to feature a voice that appeared multiple times, suggesting use of a proxy. The software produced strong indications of a proxy test-taker in 33,725 cases. It expressed “limited confidence” that a proxy featured in another 22,694. Only 2,039 attracted no suspicion.
By the end of 2016, when it stopped giving regular updates, the Home Office had revoked the visas of 35,870 people based on ETS’s data. Those affected included all those flagged confidently as cheats, while the remainder came from the limited confidence group, who were offered a resit.
Brink Gardner, former managing director of Blake Hall College, a private college that was popular with some of the international students affected, says by telephone from his home in Kent that the sweeping action shows the Home Office had “an agenda”. Blake Hall and scores of other colleges with a high proportion of students accused of Toeic cheating were forced to close down.
“It was the run-up to an election,” Gardner says, referring to the 2015 general election, in which immigration featured prominently. “My view is still 100 per cent that Theresa May wanted to make a point in trying to maintain the tens of thousands net immigration target.”
Om Upreti, now 37, from near Kathmandu in Nepal, says he never took the test. Yet he was removed from his course at the University of West London in Ealing, even though his official acceptance letter recognised he had shown enough command of English to be exempt from testing.
In a coffee shop near his home in south-east London, he produces papers showing he has won cases in the immigration appeals tribunal — once in the first-tier tribunal, then, following a Home Office appeal, in the upper tribunal. He argued that his name appeared in error on the “invalid list” of students blacklisted for having cheated. ETS may have obtained his name, he believes, after he made inquiries about a test in case he needed one. ETS has not responded to any emails or phone calls from the FT seeking comment. “The Home Office asked me lots of questions,” Upreti says of his initial case. “The judge is quite happy with me because I never took the exam — he allowed my appeal.”
Upreti received the latest Home Office letter rejecting his visa application in October, despite his legal victories. He fears the £10,500 he spent on tuition fees for his MBA at the University of West London will go to waste — the university has said that even if he is allowed to re-enrol, he will have to pay a new set of fees. He has also run up £15,000 in credit card debt for legal fees and other expenses.
A multitude of other inconsistencies in ETS’s evidence has emerged thanks to persistent work by solicitors, including Salima Budhani of London’s Bindmans, and barristers, including Patrick Lewis of Garden Court Chambers. In the case of Khaled Mahmud, a Bangladeshi student, the company said he took his test at a centre in Manchester although he has train tickets and ATM cash withdrawal records to show he took it in Whitechapel.
The number of visas revoked by the Home Office after asking Educational Testing Service to re-examine 58,458 Toeic tests
Sheikh Amin, a Bangladeshi man seeking to set up a business in the UK, sat the exam at Colwell College in Leicester, according to ETS. Amin has produced bank records showing that, on the day in question, he bought food from a KFC restaurant near his home in Stratford, east London, then a Docklands Light Railway ticket. He took the train to the Blue Moon Academy in Mile End, where he sat the test, and says he has never visited Leicester. Mohammad Mohibullah, from Chittagong in Bangladesh, took the test on April 18 2012, and can prove he was working at his part-time job on April 17 2012, when ETS says he took it.
The experience of Nabeel Ahsan, from Pakistan, shows the Home Office seldom concedes even apparently clear-cut issues, however. Ahsan spent years fighting to hear the clip that ETS said showed a proxy took his test. Yet Patrick Lewis, his barrister, says that the clip, when released, featured Ahsan’s distinctive, West Midlands accent — to the satisfaction of everyone but the Home Office. “It was clearly me,” Ahsan says, in an office near his home in Birmingham. “But then the Home Office was arguing the case that we need to do an independent voice verification. Independent voice verification costs around £4,000. They were not prepared to pay the cost.”
Ahsan was, nevertheless, finally granted Indefinite leave to remain in the UK on January 17, as this piece was being prepared for publication.
Such discrepancies are no surprise to Peter Sommer, professor of digital forensics at Birmingham City University. Sommer, an expert witness in Mohammad Mohibullah’s appeal in 2016, says that after reviewing the evidence, he concluded ETS’s information should be disregarded. Lax safeguards and other shortcomings made it too unreliable. “All one could do is to say this is not a satisfactory way to carry on testing and, more immediately and critically, the Home Office shouldn’t be relying on it.”
Sommer outlines in the report how proxy test-takers’ voices might have appeared on candidates’ voice files without their knowledge. Criminal investigators, he writes, found computers at one test centre in Birmingham were fitted with software that would have allowed staff to control candidates’ computers. While the software would have alerted candidates to its presence, “covert remote control” of a computer — which would have overwritten even legitimate candidates’ files without their knowledge — is common in cyber crime, the report points out.
The ETS evidence, which was supplied to the Home Office in the form of a spreadsheet, is so confused that Sommer is unable to gauge what proportion of those accused of cheating have been wrongly targeted. But it seems clear many of the accusations were mistaken. Sommer, an experienced expert witness, says it is depressing the department continues to fight cases using the same evidence. “In the vast majority of cases that I do where there’s a doubt about the reliability of the evidence, you raise a doubt about it and the evidence is withdrawn,” he says.
Nidhin Chand discovered the consequences of the Home Office’s zeal in January 2015. Chand was awaiting a visa extension to undertake a PhD when two police officers approached her in Shepherd’s Bush, west London. The officers, whom she knew from her part-time job at the local market, arrested her and held her in the police station.
Chand recalls how she had taken a Toeic test the previous year, in case she needed it when applying to study for a PhD. Her previous completion of a master’s degree in the UK meant that, in the end, the certificate was unnecessary. “They arrested me in front of my friends,” Chand says. “That was a horrible day in my life. I was put in a police [cell] for 20 hours — the whole night. I didn’t sleep at all.”
Chand was released only when an immigration officer arrived to question her and was struck by her English, which is so fluent that in India she prepared students for Ielts.
“He said, ‘Your English is as good as mine, so I think they’ve made a mistake in this decision,’” Chand recalls. Now 41, she holds a partner’s visa through her relationship with Day, whom she met after her detention. But the flashbacks continue. “I have real issues with anxiety and all those things,” she says. Although most of those still fighting Toeic decisions are safe from immigration removal because they have live appeals, the fear of an unexpected knock on the door has hung over many involved for long periods.
Sheikh Amin suffers similar anxiety following the events of February 5 2015. At 8.05 that morning, 12 immigration enforcement officers burst into his home. Giving him five minutes to gather his belongings, they told him they would remove him from the country that evening. Like Chand, he had been told a decision on his visa was pending.
He spent three days in Brook House, near Gatwick airport, a removal centre whose treatment of detainees has generated frequent controversy. While there, Amin met other Toeic students who, despite protesting their innocence, were put on removal flights. He was released. “I’ve had suicidal thoughts a couple of times,” Amin says. “I got treatment from the mental therapy doctor.”
Even accused cheats who have undergone less obvious trauma look unlikely to resume their previous lives any time soon. Upreti has just paid another £580 in fees to his solicitor for a forthcoming appeal, with a further £1,200 due to a barrister, and describes himself and his wife as “stuck here” in London. The sentiment is common among those fighting the cheating claims. “We don’t want to go back [to Nepal] without anything,” he says. “I cannot say [to myself] ‘Give up’ — and go back home. So there’s no other way — only to appeal.”
Many fight on to avoid bringing shame on their families. Some have not told relatives about the cheating accusations, while families have disowned others who have told the truth. Sheikh Amin says that his wider family have rejected him because he has spent much of the family’s money fighting the cheating accusations, which have eaten up around £16,000 in legal fees. Having initially misled his parents, he has explained most — but not all — of the situation to them. “I never ever explained that I was in the detention centre because my family is very conservative,” he says. “If they know, the social status is going to be so much down.”
The decline in students arriving in the UK from India — a key source of foreign-student earnings — between 2012-13 and 2016-17
Nabeel Ahsan says the risks of giving up are unacceptable. Before he received his leave to remain, he told an uncle in Pakistan that because he was running out of money and was tired of being barred from working or studying, he wanted to return home. The uncle warned him off. “He said, ‘Nabeel, the allegation will go with you into Pakistan,’” Ahsan recalls. “‘You’ll be detained. You’ll get a criminal record as somebody with a record of deception, which means you’re not a person who can be trusted, which means that you cannot work for a reputable international company.’”
Such concerns are not fanciful, according to Amin. When he considered abandoning his battle and applied for a job in Bangladesh, the process was derailed when the employer asked whether he had ever faced any legal problems. “As soon as I told them, they said, ‘Sorry, we won’t consider you any further.’”
The hostile environment is having wider consequences. In January 2018, figures from the Higher Education Statistics Authority showed the number of students arriving in the UK from India — one of the country’s main sources of foreign-student earnings — declined 26 per cent between 2012-13 and 2016-17. Analysts attributed the fall partly to bad publicity surrounding the Home Office’s treatment of Indian students.
Universities’ continued suspicion of even students who have resolved their legal problems seems unlikely to reverse the decline. Mohammad Mohibullah says that when he won his case, his initial new visa allowed him to stay only 60 days while looking for a new educational sponsor. He had been a student at Blake Hall College. “By the time I got my judgment, the college had been shut down and, even though I approached many sponsors, most of them are refusing to take me because of my complicated immigration history,” he says.
Wahidur Rahman now advises friends to avoid the UK. “Finland or Sweden is much easier for foreign students,” he says. “The environment [here] is so toxic now — there’s always trouble.”
Sitting in the atrium of Portcullis House, the MPs’ office building in Westminster, Stephen Timms says he finds such sentiments deeply troubling. He wants the government to offer everyone concerned a new English language test. If they pass, the students should be allowed to resume their studies, while all involved should be allowed to work to clear their debts. He hopes that will provide some compensation. “This whole thing makes me feel just ashamed that our country is treating people so appallingly,” Timms says. “The only mistake they made in many cases is they chose to trust Britain to provide them with a decent education.”
Robert Wright is the FT’s social policy correspondent
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