Explained: What the Home Office international students cheating scandal is actually about
Lawyers have likened to the Post Office scandal
In 2014, the Home Office international students cheating scandal began. 56,000 international students were accused of cheating in their language tests to get visas to study in the UK. As a result, the Home Office threw all the students off their courses and thousands were deported, held in detention centres and lost all their course fee money.
Likened to the Post Office Horizon scandal which was recently dramatised by ITV, thousands claim they have been the victim of a miscarriage of justice.
More than 3,600 students have won appeals against the Home Office and had their convictions overturned. But thousands have been unable to clear their names and it has left them unable to travel, in a serious amount of debt, and in some cases, suicidal.
But now, the affected students are fighting to clear their names after 10 years.
So what does all this actually mean and what happened in the international students cheating scandal?
Well, in 2014 a BBC Panorama documentary revealed supposed widespread cheating in the English language tests international students were required to take to study in the UK. As a result of the allegations, the Home Office revoked the visas of over 56,000 students, The Guardian reports.
These students were thrown off their courses, 2,500 were deported and 7,200 left the country after being told they would be imprisoned if they stayed.
Muhammad Ali, now 35, was studying for a postgrad course in tourism management in Scotland in 2014 when his house was raided at 5am by Home Office enforcement officers. He was accused of cheating and was held in immigration detention for two weeks. He returned to Pakistan and has been unable to clear his name. He speaks fluent English with a Scottish accent.
He told The Guardian: “I was handcuffed and held in a nightmarish detention centre. Since coming back home I’ve struggled to explain to my family what happened. My father is a respectable senior banker, who worked for the same bank in Karachi for 42 years. He poured so much money into sending me to the UK to study. It was such a prestigious thing, to send your son to the UK for higher education.
“I was a young chap of 18 when I left home – it was a dream – and then I came back with an accusation from the UK government that I’m a cheat, a con artist, that I submitted fake documents. None of my family believed me except my mum.
“It was devastating. I started hating myself; stupid thoughts came into my mind. I can’t get visas to travel elsewhere because of this allegation.”
But was there any evidence of cheating?
So, yes there has been clear evidence that a small number of international students had paid people working at some test centres to make sure they passed the test. 21 people have received prison sentences for helping students cheat. Clear evidence of fraud was found in two of the 90 test centres where students were punished for supposed cheating.
But, thousands of people say they were wrongly accused and lawyers say the software used by the company Educational Testing Service (ETS) which ran the tests is unreliable. Lawyers compare these tech issues with the Horizon Post Office scandal.
Campaigners say it is impossible that such a high number of students could have been involved. Some of those who have tried to clear their names were educated in English-speaking schools and had no reason to cheat in a basic English language test.
One affected student, Shana Shaikh, had been studying English since she was a child and already had an undergraduate degree in Chemistry from the UK. She said the exam was “very basic [and] childish” and so she had no reason to cheat.
How were students affected?
The human cost of the scandal has been huge. At least 35,000 students were thrown off courses, all losing their fees which, for international students, can be as high as £38,000 a year.
For many, the home Office raided their houses at 5 am and they were taken to “nightmarish” detention centres. Many were deported and for some, whose convictions haven’t been overturned, they still don’t have their passports back or UK citizen status, leaving them unable to travel, work, own property or study.
Dilshad Abdul, now 44, said he had to miss his mother’s funeral in 2017 as the Home Office had his passport, leaving him unable to travel.
He said: “My relatives have disowned me, called me disgraceful, accused me of disrespecting my family. They say: ‘Your mum spent so much money on your higher education. You didn’t come to the funeral.’
“I’ve felt suicidal. If I see a police car, I feel panic. I’m often afraid to go out. I could be deported. If I were to go home now, I’d struggle to get a job at my age, starting from the bottom.
“The trauma is with me every day. I blame the Home Office for putting me in this situation.”
Dilshaud Abdul is desperately trying to overturn his cheating conviction as he is stuck, unable to study or work. He said: “I’m basically destitute here now, not allowed to work or study, relying on the kindness of relatives. It’s embarrassing living here and there, relying on charity. I feel so guilty about it.”
What is happening now?
Students are now trying to overturn their appeals and get justice. The charity Migrant Voice is running a campaign called #MyFutureBack and has been working with students since 2017. The affected individuals are hoping for an acknowledgement that they have been wrongly accused, the chance to return to their studies in the UK and to have the allegation of deception lifted from their immigration records.
The affected victims are also pitching a Mr Bates-style drama to make people fully understand their position. Nazek Ramadan, director of Migrant Voice said: “If it takes a drama to make people understand, then we’ll make a drama. We’ve been inspired by how people have responded to the Post Office drama, and there are so many parallels.
“This is a huge injustice that most people still don’t know about. Thousands of students, young men and women who came here in good faith, had their lives ruined. We want people to empathise and support them. What they went through must be documented.”
The English Language Test Victims campaign has also been pushing “to get our future back”. A petition for justice was set up in 2019.
Abdul Qadir Mohammad from India has spent over £20,000 trying to clear his name so he can continue with the course he was thrown off.
He told The Guardian: “I haven’t been home for 14 years. I haven’t hugged my mum or dad for 14 years – that’s not a small thing. My landlord hasn’t taken any rent for eight years because he knows what I’m going through, he knows I didn’t cheat. My friends buy me groceries and food. I feel ashamed to face my family back home.
“My family believe me but my father is still angry with me. He has spent so much money first on my education and then on trying to clear my name. He had a small grocery shop and saved up to put £15,000 into my college fees. I’ve got debts on my credit card of £10,000. My mother sold her gold to support me. At this time of life, people get good jobs, buy a car, they get married, get a home. I don’t have any of those things.
“I get panic attacks. I feel very angry about the way this has been handled. It has destroyed my life. These tests are easy to pass; I had no reason to cheat. I’m not even sure if they’ve got the right file – when ETS sent the file originally it had the wrong test date and the wrong date of birth.
“I want to clear my name and get on with my studies; I want to do a masters. I want to show my family that I didn’t cheat. I spend my days sitting in the park, desperately waiting for my hearing.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “Abuse of our immigration system will not be tolerated and those who do will face the appropriate measures against them. This includes cheating on English language tests. Courts have consistently found evidence that is sufficient to take action, and it is only right that we allow these legal processes to run their course.”
If you have been affected by the international students cheating scandal and would like to share your story in confidence, please email [email protected].