In February 2014, a BBC Panorama investigation exposed systemic student visa fraud, which included secret filming of government-approved English-language exams and showed candidates having their tests being fraudulently completed by “fake sitters”.
A subsequent investigation by the British Home Office led to 50,000 English language tests taken by international students being declared invalid, 34,000 international student visas cancelled, as well as the overseas student sponsorship licences of one university and 57 private education colleges being suspended.
Five years on and many international students across the UK are still fighting to clear their name:
Jaspal is one of around 34,000 people stripped of their status by the Home Office after being accused of cheating in TOEIC exams, an English language test frequently sat by international students. Since they were accused in 2014, thousands of students have protested their innocence, saying the evidence against them was inadequate. But the case has only recently received serious scrutiny…
But serious doubts have been raised about the results. Migrant Voice, a non-profit group advocating for the students, believes the method of assessing cheating was inadequate, potentially smearing thousands of innocent people. It says the Home Office “failed to scrutinize” ETS evidence, and accepted it at face value despite significant flaws in the data.
“Thousands of people have been criminalized and their lives torn apart on the basis of fundamentally flawed evidence,” Nazek Ramadan, the organization’s director, said.
A National Audit Office (NAO) investigation confirmed the scale of the potential injustice in a report published in mid-May. It found 25,115 people flagged as cheats in TOEIC exams have been subjected to Home Office enforcement action, including 2,468 enforced removals, while at least 11,356 people have left the UK.
ABC’s equivalent to Panorama, Four Corners, has documented similar troubles with English-language standards at Australian universities.
Four Corners’ 2015 report, entitled “Degrees of Deception”, uncovered widespread cheating and plagiarism by international students across Australia’s universities. Below are some highlights:
LINTON BESSER: Four Corners’ undercover journalist also made a remarkable discovery about how lax English requirements are becoming to gain a student visa.
This agency is EIC.
She is promising special help to get around the robust English language test, known as IELTS, that has traditionally been used to enter an Australian university.
EIC ADVISER (translation): If this kid can’t get a reasonable mark or close to it, we could arrange an internal test. The IELTS test is hard. The internal test is comparatively easy: listening, reading and writing, three parts. The level of difficulty will decrease.
LINTON BESSER: Down the road is AOJI, one of the biggest agents in the country. It made a similar offer.
AOJI ADVISER (translation): To enrol into a university there is a standard, but through our application we could manage that.
LINTON BESSER: The agent suggests the student could sit an alternative exam called Versant.
AOJI ADVISER (translation): The 48th ranked university in the world, UNSW, which is rated third in Australia: they have their own internal test system. It is called Versant. It is acknowledged by the international community and is the same as IELTS.
LINTON BESSER: But it’s not the same: it’s much easier.
Since 2012, the Government has asked universities, not the Department of Immigration, to determine who gets a visa to enter the country to study. It no longer asks that entrants meet a nationally recognised standard.
And universities, which are desperate to increase the flow of overseas students, can now decide how many come into the country.
AOJI ADVISER (translation): Some people might have difficulty with IELTS. They could use this system.
ROBERT WALDERSEE: The falsification of documents that comes through from students is often done in collusion with the, ah, agents themselves. In some cases, the universities have hired independent verifiers to check documents and qualifications and only to find that the students and the agents have been colluding or bribing the document verifiers as well…
ALEX BARTHEL, HIGHER EDUCATION ACADEMIC LANGUAGE & LEARNING CONSULTANT: Academic staff increasingly are frustrated by the fact that they are there to teach pharmacy or engineering or IT or whatever they’re, they’re teaching. And they basically say, “It is not my job to help somebody with 65 spelling errors on the first page of an assignment. It’s not my job to teach them basic English grammar”…
ZENA O’CONNOR: Often their emails and their essays are almost impossible to decipher. Um, that’s in a very small proportion of cases but that does beg the question: have these students passed the basic, ah, test for university entry in terms of written, written English?…
LINTON BESSER: With thousands of students often struggling with English, the pressure to pass is helping to fuel a black market.
ZENA O’CONNOR: I’m, I’m staggered by the increase in plagiarism. Ah, to start with: in my experience, it was a very small proportion – you know, maybe two, three, four per cent. I would peg it now at being much, much higher: well over 50 per cent.
Four Corners’ latest investigation entitled “Cash Cows”, which aired last month, raised similar concerns:
REPORTER: How frequently are universities waiving English language requirements?
RAVI LOCHAN SINGH, AAERI: I would say that it’s not all universities, but there are definitely large numbers of universities still which waive English language requirements…
ANDREW DURSTON, FMR IMMIGRATION OFFICIAL: Higher education institutions came to the government a number of years back and said we’re of good standing and you should be able to trust our ability to recruit the right kids of students. We should be able to assess the English capabilities of the student. The immigration department doesn’t need to be involved in that. Um, and that was largely accepted by the government…
ELISE WORTHINGTON, REPORTER: Ravi Lochan Singh represents the Indian education agents who are paid by universities to bring students to Australia… Under the new system universities can waive their own English entry standards and accept students who haven’t taken an Independent English test. How frequently are universities waiving English language requirements?
RAVI LOCHAN SINGH: I would say that it’s not all universities, but there are definitely large numbers of universities still which waive English language requirements…
ELISE WORTHINGTON, REPORTER: Murdoch is not alone in recruiting students with English scores below their published entry requirements. Four Corners has obtained evidence showing the University of Tasmania and Southern Cross university are also advertising English waivers…
DR DUNCAN FARROW: Their level of English, particularly written English, was very poor and, in some cases, they seemed to not understand the process that they were going through in terms of this academic misconduct…
RAVI LOCHAN SINGH: There are students who won’t be able to write an assignment on their own. There are students who would study into a program, wouldn’t understand anything. I feel a little lost as to what they will get at the end of the year. What’s going to happen? They will fail subjects, and what’s going to happen in the end is they’ll fail the program. They’ll become non-complying.
ANDREW DURSTON: There are too many students coming without the requisite capabilities. Whether that’s English, whether that’s academics, whether that’s financial capacity to maintain themselves in Australia. The tolerance level is too low in my opinion.
A separate ABC investigation last year also “uncovered an abundance of international students who describe struggling to communicate effectively in English, participate in class, or complete assignments adequately”. Academics, education experts and employers also told the ABC that “English language standards are often too low or can be sidestepped via loopholes, and that students are often put in stressful classroom situations that can lead to cheating”.
The Department of Home Affairs requires a minimum IELTS score of 5.5 to study in Australia. However, as noted above, these requirements are often side-stepped via fraud or universities waiving English-language requirements.
The whole process is facilitated by an army of unregulated offshore education agents, whose adds proliferate across Facebook (example below):
Indeed, a recent report by the Joint Parliamentary Inquiry into efficacy of current regulation of Australian migration and education agents claimed such agents were behind around three quarters of all international student enrolments at Australian tertiary institutions, and documented various allegations of unlawful and unethical behaviour.
These outcomes are the result of the university system being commercialised, and international students being treated as cash cows to be milked for profit.
A culture has been created whereby these students believe they have a right to purchase the qualification they have paid for, rather than earn it, often for the purpose of gaining permanent residency. In the process, both entry and teaching standards have been destroyed in a bid to keep international student numbers (and profits) flowing.
The whole university system is a mess and deserves its very own Royal Commission.