The UK's spending watchdog on Friday issued a damning rebuke of the British government's handling of a visa row involving compulsory English tests given by thousands of overseas students, many of them from India.
The country's National Audit Office (NAO), which had launched its investigation last month into widespread claims that many students were wrongly accused of cheating, in its findings said that the UK Home Office had not taken enough care to ensure innocent applicants were not caught up in a crackdown launched following evidence of fraud in the system.
"Clearly widespread cheating did take place but some people may have been wrongly accused and in some cases, unfairly removed from the UK," the NAO report concluded.
In February 2014, 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. The UK Home Office responded vigorously, investigating colleges, test centres and students.
"When the Home Office acted vigorously to exclude individuals and shut down colleges involved in the English language test cheating scandal, we think they should have taken an equally vigorous approach to protecting those who did not cheat but who were still caught up in the process, however small a proportion they might be. This did not happen," said Amyas Morse, the head of the NAO.
After the BBC expose, the Home Office began cancelling the visas of those it considered to have cheated in the Test of English for International Communication (TOEIC), a compulsory requirement in some student visa cases, a majority of them from South Asian countries of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
The NAO investigation questioned the Home Office, led by Theresa May as home secretary at the time, on the evidence it relied on to determine the cases of cheating.
"After conducting some brief analysis on the information sent by ETS, the Home Office concluded that ETS had not made systematic errors. We reviewed ETS' data and identified one systematic error.
"For two years, the Department [Home Office] revoked the visas of anyone with an invalid test, without expert assurance of the validity of voice recognition evidence," it noted.
At the end of March 2019, Home Office data indicates 11,000 people who had taken TOEIC tests had left the country after the discovery of extensive cheating.
Approximately 7,200 left voluntarily after April 2014, around 2,500 people were forcibly removed and almost 400 were refused re-entry to the UK.
These numbers may be an underestimate, the NAO concluded.
Migrant Voice, the group which has been campaigning for the rights of the students wrongly accused of cheating, welcomed the findings and called on UK home secretary Sajid Javid to take steps to rehabilitate the "tens of thousands of innocent students."
"The way the Home Office has treated these students makes a mockery of the British justice system. And the impact has been devastating. Those still living under the shadow of the allegation and fighting to clear their names live every day in growing despair... Many have contemplated or attempted suicide," said Nazek Ramadan, Director of Migrant Voice.
Meg Hillier, the Chair of the House of Commons Committee of Public Accounts, said the Home Office made no effort to identify innocent people, and may have removed some from the UK who were not guilty of cheating.
"The Home Office must take urgent steps to check whether its response to cheating has been fair and proportionate for all those involved," Hillier said.
The UK Home Office said that almost all those involved in the cheating were linked to private colleges which the department already had "significant concerns" about.
"The report is 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," a Home Office spokesperson
Javid is currently reviewing the evidence related to the scandal and is expected to announce measures to address the issue in the Commons in the coming weeks.
Campaigners have demanded that all those wrongly accused be allowed a re-test and also have access to compensation.
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