Written by:
Nazek Ramadan

‘All they want is the chance to clear their names’: The English-language test scandal 

Read time:
7 minutes

‘All they want is the chance to clear their names’: The English-language test scandal 

Thousands of international students have had their lives devastated after being accused of cheating on an English-language test, in a case that has been compared to the Post Office Horizon scandal. As legal proceedings continue, Nazek Ramadan of charity Migrant Voice, which is campaigning on the issue, provides some vital context.   

In 2014, the Home Office accused approximately 56,000 international students of cheating on their English-language tests. This was roughly 97 per cent of all the students taking the test between 2011 and 2014. Of these, around 35,000 were stripped of their right to study and 10,000 were deported or forced to leave the country. 

The case was based on a BBC Panorama investigation broadcast in February 2014 that focused on two testing centres in London, with the ‘evidence’ of cheating coming from one company, Educational Testing Services (ETS), which provided the test. 

For the past decade, the affected students have fought to clear their names. The case is neither simple nor clear cut. When Migrant Voice was first approached to help their campaign in 2017, the levels of complexity seemed insurmountable. At its heart, however, the case hinged on believing IT systems over human beings, a situation that led to so many students being unjustly accused of cheating.

No one denies that some cheating took place at the two testing centres. But there is no realistic way that 97 per cent of students taking the test could be doing so. Moreover, stripping people of the right to study or work without any concrete evidence, on the basis of believing one company and its IT systems over the individual right to be innocent until proven guilty, is manifestly unjust.

‘Many of those involved were criminalised, detained and deported’

The case goes far beyond simply denying students the right to study in the UK. Many of those involved were criminalised, detained and deported. Some families have disowned students, believing that the UK system could not be so flawed as to create an injustice of this scale. 

As we have seen with the Post Office Horizon scandal – of which there are many startling similarities – injustices happen, often relating to IT errors and the unwillingness of large companies to accept responsibility for them. Expert testimony has shown how such errors could have occurred, yet it has often been ignored in favour of a pre-accepted idea that simply by being accused the students must be guilty. Proving their innocence, helping them to regain their futures, grows harder as time goes on. Ten years is a long time for anyone to keep fighting. 

Through Migrant Voice’s #MyFutureBack campaign, a growing number have had the evidence to challenge the injustice, clear their names in court and be found innocent. More have left the country and tried to move on with their lives. But for a large number, these options are not available. 

Successive home secretaries and immigration ministers have failed to reopen the cases; when some have looked close to doing so, they have been moved on in reshuffles before anything could happen. This has left students feeling as if they have been abandoned by the very system they trusted to protect their rights, the system they followed in the hope of being able to study in the UK. 

Some students have racked up debts of tens of thousands of pounds in fighting for justice. They have borrowed where they can, including to support themselves as they are still denied the right to work or study. Many have taken different tests to demonstrate their language skills are such that they had no need to cheat. All of this has led to a group-action lawsuit, for which they are currently awaiting a verdict. This judgement could change their lives for the better or see them left in limbo yet again. 

‘Imagine being told time and time again that nothing could be done because the computer could not be wrong’

Imagine if 97 per cent of an entire year’s A-level students not only had their grades cancelled but were also denied the chance of ever studying again because cheating had been found in two schools. Imagine having your door crashed through in the early hours of the morning and being dragged away in front of your loved ones for a reason you do not know. Imagine being told time and time again that nothing could be done because the computer could not be wrong. International students do not have to imagine this; it has been their lives for the last 10 years.

This case goes much deeper than a simple testing scandal. It speaks to the discrimination faced by those who come to the UK. It reflects an institutionalised concept of disbelief: 56,000 students accused and 36,000 stripped of the right to study based on a handful of cases at two testing centres and the evidence of one company, which was subsequently removed as a test provider. This is a scandal that does not pass the common-sense test yet continues to drag on. 

The 10-year anniversary of the Panorama investigation should mark not just the end of this injustice, but also the moment that students get their futures back. This scandal has destroyed countless lives. It has left people separated from their families and even their children in some cases, such is the stigma of the cheating accusation. 

All they want is the chance to clear their names. 

Nazek Ramadan is the director of Migrant Voice.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the Runnymede Trust.

Join the fight for racial justice: support the Runnymede Trust’s work by making a donation.

Photo © Migrant Voice

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