MPs launch enquiry into ETS tests
20 April 2016

A parliamentary committee has launched a formal enquiry into the Home Office's actions against international students who took ETS's TOEIC and TOEFL exams for visa purposes.

Keith Vaz, chair of the Home Affairs Committee, made the announcement after hearing evidence from Oliver Robbins, second permanent secretary of the Home Office, during an enquiry session partly devoted to the exams.

The committee has taken an interest in the affair since an upper tribunal court ruled against the Home Office in March, in the case of two students threatened with deportation.

The ruling said that the Secretary of State had not "discharged the legal burden of establishing that either appellant procured his certificate by dishonesty," while an expert witness had criticised the voice-recognition testing system used by US firm ETS ,which the judgment said was not challenged "by any competing expert witness". View a report on the tribunal hearing.

Mr Vaz announced that his committee would open a full investigation into the fate of more than 50,000 international students after a colourful hearing when he and colleague Stuart McDonald pressed Robbins on the way in which the Home Office investigated ETS's evidence that its test security might have had widespread breaches, and on whether or not more than 20,000 of the students who took TOEIC or TOEFL were allowed to retake the test for visa purposes.

One of the first questions asked by Mr Vaz was whether Mr Robbins knew how many of the ETS tests were valid. He did not. Nor did he know the level of fees paid by students whose tests were invalid, and he was asked to provide that information.

Mr Vaz noted that there was a judgement against the Home Office, and there were students who had contacted the NUS and other organisations saying that they had sat the tests but had been refused the right to stay because they had done so at a centre where all the exams were invalidated. "Is it a proper course of action when people sit tests and pay fees that all tests are suddenly suspended and there are no people who sat a test at a particular centre who have been regarded as being receiving a valid test?" he asked. 

Mr Vaz then asked the civil servant why students had not been allowed to prove their innocence. 

Mr Robbins said that the 22,000 students with "questionable results" had been offered a process to either re-sit the test, have an interview with the Home Office, or to withdraw from it. That was not correct, replied Mr Vaz, saying that the Minister had not said that 22,694 people had been allowed to resit their test.

Mr Vaz then spent time questioning Mr Robbins about why the Home Office was "invalidating and questioning these tests because ETS has said so. You have not examined these cases. You sent a delegation to New Jersey, as the judge said, that had no-one with any experience in voice recognition. That is right, is it not?"

Chris McDonald then took over the questioning, saying that the two students who appealed had asked ETS for access to their recordings, but had been repeatedly refused. "The vast majority of people who have been affected by this ruling will have to appeal from hundreds if not thousands of miles away. How can you possibly challenge a spreadsheet from ETS if ETS does not give you access to the recordings and the Home Office does not let you to turn up to the court hearing?" he asked, adding that he wanted to know what "independent scrutiny" the Home Office was doing of "these bits of paper that were coming from ETS."

Mr Vaz concluded: "The Committee will open a formal inquiry into this and we will expect to have better answers than the answers that you have provided today, Mr Robbins, bearing in mind that this has been going on for two years and the fact that 55,000 people have been affected by it. Among the 55,000 people, there are many innocent people who through no fault of their own have had their reputations damaged. Do you understand that?"

Mr Robbins replied: "The ETS case, Chairman, shows widespread, deep and very troublesome deception of the immigration rules. The Home Office is convinced that its response has been both immediate and proportionate to the risks that that has highlighted. We have done a rigorous process of checking it and now we are dealing with each case as it comes along and so far on the whole the judiciary has endorsed that. I welcome your inquiry. It can only bring further light, but I think we start from a good position."

No witness sessions have yet been scheduled for the new enquiry.


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