By Matthew Knott, News Editor of Study Travel Magazine

We have further upheaval in the UK’s student visa immigration system this week with the announcement that 57 further education colleges and one university have had their Highly Trusted Sponsor (HTS) status suspended, with another two universities asked to pause recruitment pending further investigation.

The suspensions are part of the continuing fall-out from a BBC documentary programme earlier in the year which featured undercover filming of fraud at UK Toeic test centres.

ETS, the company which administers Toeic and Toefl, has cooperated with the Home Office and provided data analysis of results over the last two years, showing 29,000 invalid test results and a further 19,000 “questionable” scores.

This certainly raises some serious questions about ETS’s systems of internal scrutiny and verification, given the numbers involved. How was this not flagged previously? A criminal investigation into ETS’s role has been launched by the government, which should provide some enlightenment.

The Minister for Immigration, James Brokenshire, told the House of Commons this week that the investigations unearthed wider evidence of abuse in the student visa system, especially within the private further education college sector. An example cited by the Minister was that at one particular college, over 200 non-EU students were found to be working and paying tax, despite the fact that non-EU students at private colleges are not permitted to work.

But this does reveal some wider concerns about how institutions are expected to maintain vigilance over students. If a college is not recording student absences, this is in contravention of their HTS status. But if students are working on top of attending classes, or during academic holidays, it is difficult to see how a school is supposed to know or police this.

Moreover, there are other actors within the system here. How did these students get a job? Their employers have been negligent is not checking their right to work; and if they were paying tax, they were presumably granted National Insurance numbers by the government.

There was another worrying announcement earlier this year by the Home Secretary that institutions would be asked to do more to ensure that their students leave after completing courses. Students are entitled to stay on for a period beyond completion of their course, within the validity of a visa, so again how could an institution be expected to retain surveillance of a student and ensure that they leave?

And coming back to falsified English language tests, certificates will often be accepted in good faith by institutions and immigration departments, especially from a source as well established globally as ETS. Incidentally, the fraudulent scores are thought to relate to tests taken in the UK.

And where agents are sometimes held in suspicion by immigration departments, surely this is an example of the extra layer of screening that can be provided by quality agents, especially in terms of initially gauging a student’s English language level and suitability for the courses to which they wish to apply for.

It would be interesting to see the Home Office conduct a statistical breakdown of the students holding the invalid test scores and how they were recruited. I’m sure they’d find these students didn’t come through a Felca member agency, or indeed a British Council-approved agency for that matter.

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