English test
Thousands of people, including international students, were wrongly accused of cheating in an English language test that caused them to be thrown out of the UK. Source: Frederick Florin/AFP

Passing an English proficiency test is a right of passage for many international students looking to secure admission to an English-medium university. However, thousands of people who have sat for ETS (Educational Testing Service)-administered English tests in the UK have reportedly been forced to leave Britain for allegedly cheating on this paper.

ETS is a US-based testing agency that manages and supervises standardised English tests, which is an admissions requirement in many universities, and satisfies a visa condition for workplaces in countries predominantly using the English language.

ETS Global, an ETS subsidiary, is the official provider of the TOEIC and TOEFL tests in over 180 countries and 9,000 locations worldwide, notes its website. It is a leading provider of English proficiency tests.

English exam

The BBC has found out that thousands of people were not given an opportunity to appeal against the Home Office who used ETS’ evidence. Source: Tolga Akmen/AFP

The BBC investigation revealed that the UK Home Office, acting on international English exam testing agency ETS’s cheating claims, had deported at least 2,500 people and forced 7,500 people to leave Britain. 

Those who have remained in the UK are fighting to clear their names. Despite knowing about ETS’s serious conduct and data flaws, the Home Office reportedly continued to remove people, as whistleblower testimony and official documents obtained by Newsnight — a British television programme, showed.

The English test scandal that rocked the world of thousands

In 2014, BBC Panorama’s investigation revealed that two London test centres’ were running fraudulent exams so people could falsely obtain a pass to apply for a visa, said the BBC. Following this, the government asked ETS to check into the extent of student cheating in over 100 testing venues.

ETS gave a list of cheats that wrongly included several innocent people, which the Home Office still relied on. Labour MP Stephen Timms was quoted saying: “Clearly, ETS was a discredited witness and yet the Home Office relied on them totally.”

Newsnight has also uncovered more evidence that has been known to the department for several years, which raised additional questions about why ETS was trusted to investigate what went on.

The BBC also discovered the following:

  • Previous and current ETS staff showed proof of organised cheating to the Home Office two years before Panorama found out;
  • ETS’ efforts to close several test centres were obstructed by the managers who expressed their concern about decreased revenue from the exams;
  • These incidents made the Home Office realise it was kept in the dark about the fraud;
  • Eyewitness accounts showed that some ETS English exams were falsified through the “remote testing” method – some lawyers believe this means ETS’s evidence is not trustworthy.

The Public Accounts Committee chair, Labour MP Meg Hillier, told the BBC: “Given what you found, I think the Home Office can no longer rely on this ETS data.”

Hillier opined that the government should drop charges against the alleged cheats, most of whom came to Britain as international students, who were thrown out without being able to challenge or see the evidence against them, reported the BBC. The Home Office cancelled their visas without a right to appeal. 

Those who protested their innocence were unable to work, study or use the National Health Services. This was exacerbated by the fact that their relatives didn’t believe the British government would make such allegations. Collectively, this took a mental toll on victims.

Some students chose to fight the allegations. Wahidur Rahman, who won a seven-year battle against the Home Office, was quoted saying: “They should hang their heads in shame for not apologising, not just to me but all the other innocent students.”

Hillier proposed those who have been wrongly accused be given an opportunity to take new English exams for new visas instead.