BBC investigation exposes student visa fraud

English language tests run by the major firm, ETS, have been suspended by the Home Offic after the BBC Panorama programme uncovered systematic fraud in the student visa system. Panorama undertook secret filming of the government-approved exams needed for a visa, showing candidates having tests faked for them. According to ETS, it sets the exams but does not appoint the invigilators.

Panorama uncovered systematic fraud in the student visa system Panorama uncovered systematic fraud in the student visa system
10-02-2014 by BBC Panorama

The Home Office has suspended English language tests run by a major firm following a BBC Panorama investigation which uncovered systematic fraud in the student visa system. Panorama's secret filming of government-approved exams needed for a visa, shows candidates having tests faked for them.

ETS sets the exams but does not appoint the invigilators.  It told Panorama that it "does everything it can to detect and prevent" cheating.

Theresa May, the Home Secretary, said the BBC's evidence was "very shocking".

ETS is one of the largest language testing firms in the world. Panorama saw candidates for the test being replaced by "fake sitters" and having answers read out to them.

The programme has been filming undercover for the last year. It has been following a network of agents helping people obtain student visa extensions through fraud. Around 100,000 non-EU students each year get their visas to stay in the UK extended.

"The programme sent non-EU students - who were already in the UK legally - undercover. They posed as bogus students with poor English, who wanted to remain in the UK to work illegally. One went undercover at an immigration consultancy called Studentway Education in Southall, west London."

The BBC was told that even if applicants spoke no English, Studentway could get around compulsory English tests. "Someone else will sit the exam for you. But you will have to have your photo taken there to prove you were present," said Director Varinder Bajarh.

The undercover exam applicant was told a "guaranteed pass" would cost £500.  This was about three times the proper fee for the exam. After paying, the undercover applicant was sent to sit the exam at Eden College International in east London.  This is a government-approved exam centre. She was set up on a computer to sit TOEIC, the visa application test. However, she never actually took the exam. Instead, each of the 14 candidates had a "fake sitter".  This fake sitter took the spoken and written tests for them.  The only thing the real candidates had to do was to wait to have their photograph taken - as proof that they were physically present at the exam.

The undercover applicant returned to the college a week later to sit another, multiple-choice, exam. This time she had to take it herself - but, she was read the correct answers by the invigilator.  The two dozen or so candidates spent just seven minutes to complete the two-hour exam.

The undercover applicant returned to Studentway a few days later and was given a TOEIC certificate.  This showed that she had not only , but had scored highly in all three tests and even getting 100% in her spoken English!  

Eden College International strongly denies any prior knowledge of the frauds as well as any complicity in them. It did however say that early last year it investigated allegations against three freelance TOEIC exam invigilators whose contracts were not renewed. Apparently, it took swift action to improve invigilation and monitoring.

The TOEIC exam is set and marked by ETS.  ETS is one of the biggest English language testing companies in the world.  However, it does not appoint the invigilators and "does everything it can to detect and prevent rare instances of dishonest test administrators or test takers".

A notice on the ETS website in the UK said that the Home Office has requested ETS to suspend various tests related to immigration purposes, temporarily in the UK.  It also said that those candidates who already had appointments to take a test for immigration purposes, would be contacted to process a refund.

"The government said it had suspended two colleges identified by Panorama and all further English language tests done through ETS in the UK."

"Panorama researchers were also sold fake bank details to show they had enough funds to stay in the UK.  Immigration rules mean non-EU students face restrictions on the amount of paid work they can do and need a bank statement to show they can cover their fees and living costs.  One of the agents at Studentway, Vinod Kumar, told a Panorama researcher the agency had a solution.  He said it would use its contacts in India to find "someone else with the same name, whose account and money will be used for you. So when there is need for verification it's verified for you till you get your visa."  Mr Kumar was proposing to steal the bank details of someone with the same name as the researcher and pass it off as hers.  Two weeks later she received a bank statement from Studentway that made it appear she had tens of thousands of pounds."

Mr Bajarh denied that Studentway was involved in any fraud, adding that Mr Kumar had never worked at the agency although he admits, Kumar may have used the office without his knowledge.  However, it is clear from the BBC's footage that Mr Bajarh is clearly present with Mr Kumar inside Studentway's premises.

The Home Secretary Theresa May, speaking to the BBC Radio 4's Today programme said: "I'm grateful to Panorama for the work they have done in showing this abuse." She said the government was taking action to change an immigration system "which was out of control when we inherited it".  She added that 700 colleges had already been stopped from bringing students in from outside the EU. The Home Secretary said that she "was looking at introducing more face-to-face interviews and called on the educational sector to do more to tackle fraud."

"This investigation shows Theresa May is presiding over a failing immigration system which too often focuses on the wrong thing and where illegal immigration is a growing problem," according to the Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper.