With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on student visas.
Since the last election, the government has taken action across the board to reduce and control immigration.
We have introduced a cap on economic migration from outside the European Union. We have reformed the family visa system.
And we have eliminated much of the abuse of the student visa system we saw under the last government. The result is that net migration from outside the EU is close to its lowest levels since the late 1990s while net migration is down by a third since its peak under the party opposite.
The government has always said, Mr Speaker, that even in light of the reforms we have introduced, we need to keep each of the main immigration routes to Britain under review, we need to remain vigilant against abuse of the student visa system, and education providers need to meet their responsibilities.
That is why I can tell the House that, since the start of February, Immigration Enforcement officers with the support from the National Crime Agency together with officials from UK Visas and Immigration have been conducting a detailed and wide-ranging investigation into actions by organised criminals to falsify English language tests for student visa applicants.
They have also investigated a number of colleges and universities for their failure to make sure that the foreign students they have sponsored meet the standards set out in the Immigration Rules.
Since reforms we introduced in 2011, it has been a requirement for all student visa applicants to prove they can speak English at an appropriate level.
All students in Further Education or at a University which relies on English Language Testing, who want to extend their stay by applying for a new student visa have to be tested by one of five companies licensed by the government.
One of those companies – the European subsidiary of an American firm called Educational Testing Services – was exposed by the BBC’s Panorama programme earlier this year following systematic cheating at a number of their UK test centres.
Facilitated by organised criminals this typically involved invigilators supplying, even reading out, answers to whole exam rooms or gangs of impostors being allowed to step into the exam candidates places to sit the test. Evidently this could only happen with considerable collusion by the test centres concerned.
Having been provided with analysis from the American arm of ETS for a number of ETS test centres in the UK operating in 2012 and 2013, they have identified more than 29,000 invalid results and more than 19,000 questionable results.
As they still have to receive test analyses from ETS for other testing centres that they operated in the UK, it is likely that the true totals will be higher.
Officials from Immigration Enforcement and UK Visas and Immigration have not found evidence to suggest there is systematic cheating taking place in the tests carried out by the other providers.
As soon as the allegations of systematic cheating were first made, we suspended ETS testing in the UK, put a hold on all immigration applications from those in the UK using an ETS test certificate, and made all applications from overseas subject to interview by UK Visas & Immigration staff.
In April ETS’s licence to conduct tests for immigration purposes ended – and two weeks ago we formally removed the company as a test provider in the Immigration Rules.
Because of the organised criminality that lies behind the falsified tests, the National Crime Agency have been brought in to work alongside Immigration Enforcement officers to pursue criminal action against the perpetrators.
Immigration Enforcement has begun work to identify anybody who is in the country illegally as a result of the falsified tests so they can be removed. Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs are also helping the investigation by scrutinising pay and tax records.
A criminal investigation has been launched into the role of ETS Global Ltd. More generally, Immigration Enforcement is working to identify, pursue, and prosecute those involved in facilitating this activity, and to investigate links to wider organised crime. Arrests have been made and I expect more will follow.
Mr Speaker, I should be clear that proof that a visa applicant can speak English is only one test for somebody seeking to study in Britain – other requirements include proof of academic qualifications, attendance at college or university and compliance with the Immigration Rules – and if these student visa applicants had to cheat to pass an English language test it is highly doubtful that many of the colleges and some universities that sponsored them in numbers were fulfilling their duties as ‘highly-trusted sponsors’.
As I said earlier in my statement, UKVI and Immigration Enforcement officers have been investigating many of the colleges and universities I am talking about because of wider concerns about their conduct.
The evidence they have provided of what is going on in these institutions is cause for serious concern.
The work undertaken by HMRC has identified a number of overseas university students earning more than £20,000 a year despite the rule that they must not work more than twenty hours per week during term time.
Overseas students at privately funded further education colleges are not allowed to work at all, yet one college – the London School of Business and Finance – has 290 foreign students who worked and paid tax last year. One university student identified by HMRC had been working a sixty-hour week for six months.
UKVI identified people allegedly studying in London while their home addresses were registered as restaurants as far as away as Ipswich and Chichester.
Students sponsored by Glyndwr University so far identified with invalid test results provided by ETS number over 230 rising to over 350 if you add the scores counted as questionable. The comparable figures for the University of West London are over 210 sponsored students with invalid scores rising to over 290 when questionable scores are included.
At certain private Further Education colleges, as many as three quarters of the file checks completed by UKVI officers were a cause for concern. At one college, a staff member told UKVI officers that they were not encouraged to report students’ absence or failure because doing so would reduce the college’s income and jeopardise its right to sponsor foreign students.
The government is not prepared to tolerate this abuse. So I can tell the House that this morning the Home Office suspended the highly-trusted sponsor status – that is the right to sponsor foreign students – of Glyndwr University.
In addition, we have suspended the licences of 57 private further education colleges, a list of which I will place in the Library of the House. We have told a further two universities – the University of Bedfordshire and the University of West London – that they are no longer allowed to sponsor new students pending further investigations which will decide whether they too should be suspended.
Other universities are involved in the continuing investigation and further action may follow, although because of the steps they have already taken to improve their processes including voluntarily ceasing overseas recruitment to London sub-campuses, we will not at this stage remove their right to sponsor foreign students.
Because much of the worst abuse we have uncovered seems to be taking place at London sub-campuses of universities based in other parts of the country, I can also tell the House that the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education will examine these London campuses to see whether further action should be taken against their parent universities.
Mr Speaker, the government does not take such action lightly. But we are clear that this kind of irresponsibility cannot go without serious sanction. We have already removed some 750 bogus colleges from the list of those entitled to bring foreign students to Britain and of these almost 400 we now know were linked to those who obtained invalid ETS certificates. We have tightened up the rules for individual students.
We have reduced the level of immigration to Britain in part by cutting out abuse in the student visa system. But we have always said we must remain vigilant against abuse.
The steps I have outlined today shows we will not hesitate to take firm action against those – students, colleges and universities – who do not abide by their legal responsibilities and resolutely pursue organised criminality to bring those responsible to justice.
I commend this statement to the House.