Revelations of fraudulent practices allowing bogus students to obtain visas to study in the UK have been received with shock and disbelief by English language teachers.
An investigation by BBC’s Panorama focused on the sale of fake examination certificates and bank statements to enable students to gain visas to study in the UK. The students then only had to put in an occasional appearance at their college while simultaneously holding down a job.
As an academic working in English Language testing, I was stunned by what I watched on Panorama. It was hardly credible that an invigilator could actually stand in an examination room and read out the answers to a multiple-choice test paper. Equally mind-boggling was the sight of examination candidates making room for surrogate candidates to take their place and complete their exam for them.
The test in question was the Test of English for International Communication (TOEIC). But this is not the most commonly used test to generate a Confirmation of Acceptance for Studies (CAS), a pre-requisite for people applying for a student visa for the UK.
Stringent anti-fraud measures
There is now a growing fear of the reputational damage the Panorama investigation could have on all English language tests among teachers.
The University of Surrey, like many other higher education institutions, is a centre for the International English Language Testing System (IELTS). This system is jointly owned by the British Council, IDP:IELTS Australia, a subsidiary of education company IDP, and the University of Cambridge English Language Assessment. It is one of the most commonly used tests of English for entry to degree programmes in the UK, with more than 2m people taking the IELTS test in 2013.
Over the years, IELTS has introduced a series of security measures aimed at detecting the increasingly ingenious attempts of unscrupulous test-takers to cheat the system. Since 2012, biometric measures have been implemented to assist in combating imposters. These include finger scans and a high-resolution photograph of the candidate that appears on their certificate.
IELTS test centre staff are also trained in impostor detection and fraudulent document recognition. The authenticity of certificates can also be verified online by all recognising organisations that accept IELTS scores.
Examiners, invigilators and administrators at Surrey’s IELTS centre are now concerned that the international reputation of IELTS could suffer as a result of the negative publicity for English language tests. This seems intensely unfair. There are more than 900 locations worldwide, including Surrey, where IELTS is administered and the same high standards of security are demanded in each one.
Value of international students
Many sectors of the population worry about immigration and probably many of their concerns are justified. As usual, it is the law-abiding, bona fide majority who often suffer as a result of the misdemeanours of the minority. In the current case, this minority is a group of opportunistic, profiteering businessmen with extremely dubious notions of ethics, intent on making money out of bogus students.
It is no surprise that the home secretary, Theresa May, wholeheartedly condemned the fraud. The investigation made a mockery of the stringent security measures the government has been applying in an attempt to win voters’ support on the immigration question. And there are some serious implications which go the heart of the higher education sector.
Statistics recently released by the Higher Education Statistics Agency put the number of international students in UK higher education at 425,265 in 2012-13. These students are highly valued members of our universities – not only for their financial contribution.
Universities UK estimates these students bring in £10.2 billion a year, projected to increase to £17 billion by 2025. But they also make an important contribution to the educational environment in terms of their linguistic and cultural heritage. They create an enriching multicultural experience for all UK students, and bring fresh expertise to our research communities.
They can facilitate links for our UK graduates as they enter the competitive global marketplace. And after graduation, international students retain strong, positive links with the UK. In a 2013 research paper setting out the wider benefits of higher education, the UK government said this “growing ‘army’ of alumni” are going on to act as informal ambassadors for “brand UK”.
The ties forged through the emotional bond created by these students while they are in the UK can have important implications for future social, economic and political collaborations.
So, although government authorities, educationalists and the general public are right to be alarmed by the fraud exposed by Panorama, the vast majority of bona fide international students and English language test providers should not be forgotten. Their contribution to the social and economic fabric of the UK should remain valued.