On 10 June the Home Office announced that the Educational Language Testing service, ETS, can no longer provide the two most common English language tests (TOEFL and TOEIC) to satisfy the English language requirement for a Tier 4 visa applications. The announcement came following an investigation by the BBC programme Panorama which suggested that there had been systematic fraud in the application of the English language testing system. As a direct result, UKVI conducted a wide ranging investigation which included visiting colleges and universities to assess whether sponsored students met the correct standards required. Over 29,000 invalid results and more than 19,000 questionable results have been uncovered thus far.

The Minister for Immigration, James Brokenshire MP, in a statement to the House of Commons on 24 June 2014 announced:

  • the suspension of 58 sponsor licences;
  • prevention of a further 2 institutions from issuing CASs;
  • agreement made with a number of institutions that they would cease overseas recruitment to London campuses;
  • ongoing investigations into other institutions.

In addition, QAA have agreed with the Home Office to investigate the London campuses of higher education institutions based in other parts of the UK, to see if action is required to be taken against their parent university.

The government has pledged to reduce net migration figures to under 100,000, they currently total close to 154,000. One of the government’s aims has been to reduce and control immigration. This theme is set to continue with the Minister announcing yesterday that UKVI will remain vigilant against abuse and “will not hesitate to take firm action against those students, colleges and universities who do not abide by their legal responsibilities.”

The Tier 4 Guidance provides that all sponsors are obliged to co-operate with UKVI by allowing access to campuses and branches on demand and by complying with requests for information. UKVI will also work alongside other departmental agencies in obtaining information as part of any investigation. If UKVI feel that any sponsor has not been complying with its duties, has been dishonest or is a threat to immigration control, they are able to take action against the sponsor.

Examples of bad practice uncovered as part of the UKVI investigation were highlighted by the Minister. These included students working and paying tax with no rights to work as they’re studying at private colleges, students earning over £20,000 a year despite a limit on the number of hours that can be worked, non reporting of absences to protect the sponsor’s position and students cheating to pass English language exams. Students working and cheating in English exams to obtain a certificate from a Home Office approved testing provider is outside of the sponsor’s control. The Minister controversially felt however that institutions sponsoring these kind of students in numbers, were unlikely to be fulfilling their sponsor duties, which in turn allows action to be taken by UKVI.

Such action can include reducing the number of CASs a sponsor can issue, suspending the sponsor licence or revoking the sponsor licence. All actions will have huge implications on institutions sponsoring foreign students. Reduction in CAS numbers and suspension of licence will severely reduce or curtail the number of students that can be sponsored for the new academic year. Revocation will result in current students’ leave to remain being curtailed. Publicity and protection of the sponsor’s reputation will also be key, as will preventing any claims arising from the affected students themselves.    What should institutions do now to protect themselves and reduce their risks? Firstly, institutions should ensure that they have undertaken an audit of their recruitment practices and of their monitoring and reporting procedures, that they are issuing students with all information required and have in place a robust English language testing process which does not simply rely on having sight of the SELT certificate.

As mentioned, it has also been announced that QAA will undertake a review of the London campuses of higher education sponsors to decide if further action is required against their parent institution. Retention of Educational Oversight by having in place a satisfactory review by QAA is a condition of retaining a sponsor licence for higher education providers. Institutions should ensure that they have compliant formal agreements in place with partner and branch institutions and with any institution for which they validate awards, as all can be audited by QAA. Institutions should also ensure that any arrangements detailed within such agreements are being carried out in practice.

Institutions with campuses, partners or branches in London or who have previously accepted TOEFL or TOEIC SELT certificates should seek further advice. The Eversheds immigration team has a wealth of experience in assisting institutions in working with UKVI to retain sponsor licenses whilst also managing contractual arrangements with partners, advising on student complaints and assisting with publicity issues.