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English tests fraud exposed in BBC UK student visas investigation

ETS suspended from conducting English Language tests following BBC investigation into corrupt practices.


A long-running undercover investigation has exposed widespread corruption in the UK’s student visa system involving one of the leading language test administrators, ETS.

Footage obtained by BBC’s Panorama showed student visas were being illegally extended and obtained via organised cheating in government-approved exams and the acquisition of false documents. Panorama reporters approached a handful of student immigration consultancies undercover as non-EU students hoping to stay in the UK illegally.

The investigation centred on exams overseen by ETS, who run the TOEFL and TOEIC tests (the TOEIC test was the one highlighted in the programme). Hidden footage revealed "fake sitters" taking the place of registered candidates minutes before the government-approved test for visa applications was set to start. The candidates are seen to approach the test’s secure computer terminals before a number of new people entered the room to take their places and sit the test for them. Meanwhile, the candidates had their photos taken by an invigilator to prove they had sat the test.

A few days later, an invigilator is shown reading out the answers to all 200 of the multiple choice questions in the second half of the exam. Candidates completed the two hour test within just seven minutes.

‘For too long many colleges, particularly private or further education colleges have been selling visas and not education,’ the home secretary Theresa May told The Guardian.

‘It is time for them to face up their responsibilities as purveyors of education and not abuse.’

One researcher was told that a guaranteed pass on the exam would cost her £500, a fee about three times that of the proper exam fee.  “All in” packages of everything needed for a visa were offered at £2,800.

Panorama has been filming undercover for over a year, following agents that help students extend their visas illegally.

‘Someone else will sit the exam for you,’ director of student immigration consultancy Studentway Varinder Bajarh says in the footage. ‘But you will have to have your photo taken there to prove you were present.’

Undercover research also revealed a thriving market for false bank documents, proving students have enough money to stay in the UK. Immigration rules stipulate that non-EU students are not allowed to work in the UK whilst they study, and so need to prove they have sufficient funds to support themselves.

Vinod Kumar, another agent at Studentway told a Panorama researcher that the company would use contacts in India to find ‘someone else with the same name, whose money and account will be used for you. So when there is need for verification it’s verified for you till you get your visa.’

Mr. Barjarh later denied Studentway’s involvement in any fraud, and said that Mr. Kumar was never employed by the agency but might have used their offices without his knowledge. 

The two colleges identified in the programme have been suspended, and any student applications in the UK using ETS, one of the world’s biggest English-language testing companies, will remain pending until all investigations have been resolved.

'We are extremely disappointed by the fraud exposed in the student visa system and condemn the behaviour of those involved. We urge the law to take its rightful course. This incident has once again raised serious concerns over UK's student immigration policies,' said National Indian Students Union UK president Sanam Arora.

'Ill thought out policies have been implemented which are discouraging the 'brightest and the best' students from coming to the UK. I would like to urge policy makers to develop considerate and thoughtful policies that help grow the second largest export market in the UK and appreciate the economic and cultural benefits international students bring. Illegal and unlawful practices must be tackled and cut at their roots, and to successfully do this the Home Office will need to implement a competitive and focused strategy.'


Five lessons to learn...

Focus on ‘education, not immigration’ – Get accepted first and then focus on the immigration aspect. It doesn’t look good if you’re asking about student visas when you haven’t even heard back from a university; it sends out the wrong message about your priorities.

Not all agencies are dishonest – If you are currently taking on an agent's services, then do not be afraid; many are legitimate. However, you can always apply directly to a university through our simple i-Apply service (it's free).

Make sure you can support yourself – Immigration laws prevent non-EU students from working part-time whilst they study, so you will need to be able to prove you’re legally able to fund your time in the UK. This is an important part of applying for a visa and proves you are serious about coming to the UK to study.

This is an isolated incident – Immigration fraud should not be taken lightly. The UK has some of the most stringent immigration laws in the world, with consequences for those who try to get around them. This particular incident is just one case of corruption involving one language examination organisation and a few test centres, and is in no way indicative of how the larger system operates.

If you have any queries about the student immigration process, visit the UKBA website


Useful links:

Learn more about obtaining a UK Student Visa the correct way

Learn more about Student Visas around the world


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About Author

Monica Karpinski received her BA (Media and Communications) and Diploma in Modern Languages (French) from the University of Melbourne, Australia. An art and culture aficionado, in her spare time Monica enjoys film, reading and writing about art.


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