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Bogus students – who’s to blame?

February 16, 2014

Last month I finished studying a unit entitled Critical Reflection in Professional Learning and Practice, and am currently waiting for the result of my assignment. It was a very useful and rewarding unit to do, and if you read this blog regularly you probably noticed that the content of my posts from September onwards went a bit reflective, as I reflected on the nature of language, the nature of language teaching, and my ability to teach. I even reflected on my own ability to reflect, which sounds odd but is actually quite an important part of the critically reflective process.

Now that I’ve finished that unit I hope I will continue to engage in critical reflection, but I also need to turn my attention to the topic of the next unit in my EdD, which is Education Policy. It hasn’t officially started yet, but I’ve done a bit of reading and I predict that over the next few months my posts are going to get a bit angry, as I discover that most governments use education as a means of indoctrinating their population rather than liberating it. Or somesuch. So watch out for that.


Speaking of policies and getting a bit angry, something made me angry earlier this week. The BBC showed a Panorama documentary last Monday, which exposed how bogus students are managing to obtain fake visa documents, allowing them to stay in the UK and work illegally. The documentary focused on one company that clearly specialised in forging documents and obtaining fake English exam results to help people get student visas. The company used a “college” that administered fake TOEIC tests; either they brought in fake candidates to sit the exam on behalf of the visa applicants or, with multiple choice papers, an “invigilator” read out the answers for the candidates to enter on the exam paper.

Now, obviously that’s terrible. People shouldn’t be obtaining student visas when they have no intention of studying. But watching the documentary made me angry on a number of levels.

For a start, why have an English language requirement in the first place? Obviously, if someone wants to come here to study Business, or Engineering, or Law, they should have a certain level of English before they do this. But what about people who want to come here to study English? It used to be the case that people would take a year or more out of their career or studies to come to the UK for the sole purpose of improving their English. Some stayed longer and ended up doing other courses, while others went back home afterwards. But while they were here they were paying for their studies, and contributing to the economy by spending large amounts of money. The home office argues that such people don’t need to come to Britain to learn English because they can do so in their own country, and is therefore suspicious of anyone who claims that learning English is the main reason for them coming here.

The home office has missed an important point though. There is a widely held belief that you can learn a language more effectively if you immerse yourself in an environment where that language is spoken. Why would the government want to disabuse people of this, forcing them to stay at home, or go to a different English-speaking country and spend their money there instead? It’s quite a spectacular case of a nation shooting itself in the foot.

So there’s that. But let’s just imagine that insisting on student visa applicants having a certain level of English is a good idea (it isn’t, but let’s just imagine it is). What’s the best way to go about this? The home office has created a list of “approved” examining bodies and English language qualifications that it accepts as legitimate. That makes sense. Except, as the BBC documentary showed, it’s possible to fake these exams.

I don’t want to suggest that the exams on the home office’s approved list are unreliable (though, since the documentary, TOEIC has been removed from the list) but I would like to question why the home office chose to approve them and not others.

ESOL qualifications awarded by the Scottish Qualification Authority (SQA), for example, are not approved. The SQA is a government-funded body that develops and awards qualifications. It is both difficult and expensive to become an SQA centre, which reduces the possibility of dodgy exam centres springing up. In order to pass an SQA ESOL qualification, a student needs to actually attend an English course as the qualification includes continuous assessment. This makes it impossible for a “fake” candidate to just turn up and sit parts of the exam. Assessments must be delivered by qualified ESOL tutors (not just administrative staff as with the TOEIC exam), and internal and external verification procedures are designed to ensure standards and assessment conditions are met.

Yet the Home Office chooses not to recognise these qualifications as valid indicators of a person’s English level. These are government-approved qualifications, remember, accredited by a government-funded authority. So, effectively the home office prefers to recognise qualifications provided by profit-making, commercially-focused organisations over qualifications approved by, well, itself.

The other thing that annoyed me about this documentary was the way it seemed keen to generalise its findings. “Our investigation proves fraud is rife”, the presenter boldly stated at the beginning of the programme. But it didn’t. It proved that fraud exists, but there was no actual evidence that this level of organised scamming exists anywhere beyond the companies that were investigated.

Theresa May, the home secretary, also seemed keen to generalise the information presented to her. She thanked the Panorama presenter for exposing “further abuse in the system”, and suggested that the Home Office needs to work hard to fight against what was being presented as widespread fraud.

Anyone watching this programme would probably come away with the belief that an enormous amount if scamming is going on, that people applying for student visas don’t actually want to study, and that colleges and other language exam providers are all part of the scam.

This is more than a little unfair. For a start, the “college” exposed in the documentary is a private college (you can tell by its web address – not, and as such it isn’t subject to rigorous inspections and reviews from Ofsted (or Education Scotland if it was in Scotland, which it isn’t). Genuine Further Education colleges (like the one I work in) are heavily dependent on state funding, and are therefore unlikely to do anything as stupid as to try and cheat the home office by administering fake exams to bogus students.

Something that the documentary did do was to show that all these controls and restrictions that the home office has introduced in recent years are not stopping people from fraudulently obtaining student visas. What these restrictions have done, however, is to make it very difficult for genuine applicants to get a visa – people who actually do want to come to the UK to study. People who will pay into the education system, who will contribute financially to the local economy, who will benefit the tourism industry. These are the people who have been discouraged from applying for student visas, not the bogus applicants.

Maybe, instead of pointing fingers and perpetuating this misconception that the nation is being overrun by cheating foreigners, the home office should take a look at itself, and try to come up with a visa application system that makes it easy for genuine applicants and difficult for fake ones – not the other way round.

  1. steveoakes99 permalink

    Thanks for this post Steve. Some pretty disturbing stuff, sad too how none of it surprises me really. But I appreciate getting a glimpse into a side of the business that I know little about (especially in the UK context). Looking forward to the next one!

    • Thanks, Steve. Yes, it is disturbing and unsurprising at the same time. Of course, none of this affects anyone coming to the UK from the EU. There are no restrictions on living, working or studying for EU nationals. In fact, EU nationals can study English full-time at a Scottish FE college (like mine) and they don’t even need to pay fees! Only in Scotland, mind you. Of course, if Scotland gets its independence then we can write our own immigration legislation as well. Who knows, in a year’s time we might be a far more favourable place for international students to study in, as well as EU students.

  2. Daljit Kaur permalink

    Hi Steve, thank you for such a detailed informative post. My anger at the government & Home Office’s attack on colleges would not have been so articulately expressed.

    A lot of foreign students & FE providers are being unfairly attacked because the Home Office doesn’t wish the nation to look too close at them & their short comings. The colleges have been an easy scapegoat and many genuine students are being labelled as fraudsters. Furthermore, I’m disappointed, but not surprised, that Panorama has presented such a biased report.

    • Hi Daljit,
      Thank you for sharing your views here. The home does seem quite happy to perpetuate this notion that all people in the country on student visas are “at it”. It’s becoming increasingly difficult for a genuine applicant to get a visa in the first place, and once they are in the country everyone seems to assume they are not here to study anyway. It’s very depressing.

  3. Ken MacDougall permalink

    I think that there is probably a proportion (5 – 7%?) of every population that is in some way ‘at it’. Judges using their mobile phones while driving, doctors dipping into the stocks of morphine, office workers pilfering the post-it notes, bartenders giving their pals free drinks etc etc etc. Unfortunately there are only a few populations that are picked out for the focus of the media and (surprise!) they happen to be groups that aren’t particularly powerful or media savvy.

    • That’s a very good point, Ken. The problem I have with the media focus is this suggestion that everybody’s at it. But what’s worse is how all this legislation has driven genuine students elsewhere.

  4. Bob permalink

    I saw that programme on YouTube a couple of weeks ago and agree with a lot of your points.

    I think in addition to the points you make, it is worth bearing in mind the context in which this legislation was introduced. I used to work at an F & HE college in England as this legislation came in around the mid-noughties and it was in the midst of a media storm about immigration from the new EU countries as well as indiscriminate and synonymous use of refugees, asylum seekers and bogus asylum seekers. My then boss astutely drew my attention to the fact that of all the different migrants and immigrants entering the UK, international students were the only realistically controllable group. EU passport holders have freedom to live and work throughout the EU, the UK has an international obligation to take in refugees, asylum seekers claim asylum only after crossing the border, certain sectors have skills shortages and are in desperate need of employees with those skills, so who is left? International students, of course.

    The international student policy is all about immigration politics, the general anti-immigrant rhetoric of certain powerful elements in the media and the impotence of politicians to be able to curtail immigration in any meaningful way except by removing a whole swathe of genuine international students who want to study English from a low level in the UK. As you rightly point out the generalisations and sensationalism in this particular documentary (good old BBC) and the swift overreactions by the Home Secretary show what a crowd pleaser such TV and knee-jerk reactions are.

    To me, from a financial point of view international students should be considered economically as valuable as business exports. Their money is earned overseas and they spend it in the UK. The vast majority come, have a great time, develop personally and professionally, and head home (or fill the skills gap!), and have kept a roof over my head and food in my belly. Of course, there is a lot more to their worth than merely monetary but the anti-immigration feeling tends to centre round the fear that UK taxpayers are being taken to the cleaners by Johnny Immigrant.

    What I never understood was why international students (who stay over 6 months) are classified as immigrants in the first place. I’ve been led to believe this is not the case in the UK’s English-education competitor countries (US, AUS, NZ).

    By the way, I’m starting the EdD at Glasgow this year so very pleased to have stumbled over your blog.

    • Hi Bob,
      Thanks very much for your comment here, and for highlighting a very valid point. The whole thing is really about immigration politics; there was no real way that the government could reduce any other type of immigrants so they decided to target students.
      The short-sightedness of a policy designed to reduce international students is quite extraordinary though, as the revenue they generate is not something that the country can easily do without. I think the government has started to get this message though, possibly because many private language schools are in conservative and libdem constituencies.
      I hope you enjoy the EdD – it’s a really good course. If you look back at my posts over the last year you might get an idea of the kinds of things you have to go through.
      Please feel free to comment on other parts of my blog.

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