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In a significant crackdown on abuse of the student visa system, Britain’s immigration and security ministry on Tuesday announced that it has stripped 60 higher education institutions of the right to host new foreign students and has begun a criminal investigation into the Princeton, N.J.-based Educational Testing Service’s international subsidiary, ETS Global, after discovering evidence of widespread fraud in English language testing.

ETS administers the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) and Test of English for International Communication (TOEIC), both of which were, until recently, among the tests approved by the U.K. Home Office for immigration purposes (as part of the U.K. visa application process, prospective international students and others are required to provide proof of their English language proficiency).

The Home Office, Britain's main security agency, removed ETS from its list of approved language test providers earlier this year after the BBC news program "Panorama" uncovered “systematic fraud” at TOEIC test centers in the U.K., including incidents in which examinees were replaced by “fake-sitters” who completed the test for them and a case of a proctor reading the correct answers aloud to test-takers.

In his Tuesday address to Parliament, U.K. Minister for Immigration and Security James Brokenshire said that an ETS analysis identified more than 29,000 invalid test results and more than 19,000 questionable ones at “a number of ETS test centers in the U.K. operating in 2012 and 2013.” He said that because immigration enforcement officials have yet to receive data from ETS for other testing centers “it is likely that the true totals will be higher.” Brokenshire said that government authorities have not found evidence of “systematic cheating” in the cases of other English language testing providers aside from ETS.

“A criminal investigation has been launched into the role of ETS Global Ltd.,” Brokenshire said in his written testimony. “More generally, Immigration Enforcement is working to identify, pursue and prosecute those involved in facilitating this activity, and to investigate links to wider organized crime. Arrests have been made and I expect more will follow.”

In a statement, ETS said it takes the Home Office’s Tuesday announcement “extremely seriously.”

“The Home Office has clearly outlined wide-ranging criminal activity by individuals trying to circumvent all parts of the U.K. immigration system, which represents a threat to all English language testing providers. ETS continues to cooperate with the Home Office, who have oversight of the entire system. Integrity and security of our tests is a top priority and we are proactively putting in place significant security reforms for our tests."

Revelations of English language testing fraud are likewise having major reverberations for the universities that have been found to sponsor students with invalid scores. In his statement to Parliament, Brokenshire said that the Home Office had suspended Glyndŵr University’s highly trusted sponsor status, which allows it to host international students, and that it had informed two other universities, the Universities of Bedfordshire and of West London, that they are not permitted to sponsor new international students pending further investigations. 

In the case of Glyndŵr, in Wales, Brokenshire said that students sponsored by the university include more than 230 associated with invalid ETS test scores, and more than 350 if questionable results are included as well. Glyndŵr, for its part, issued a statement saying it was “deeply upset” at the revocation of its highly trusted sponsor status and that it was working with immigration officials to respond to the issues raised and seek a reinstatement of its license to host foreign students.

Glyndŵr also shifted the blame to its external partners: “We have partnerships with a number of suppliers and are incredibly disappointed to have been the subject of any deception or activity that would put that license under threat,” the university said.

The Home Office also suspended the license to host foreign students for 57 private further education colleges, a subset of the postsecondary sector that typically provides basic skills or vocational credentials. At some of these institutions, Brokenshire said that as many as three-quarters of the student file checks conducted by U.K immigration authorities “were a cause for concern.”

“At one college, a staff member told [U.K. Visas and Immigration] officers that they were not encouraged to report students’ absence or failure because doing so would reduce the college’s income and jeopardize its right to sponsor foreign students,” Brokenshire said.

“The government is not prepared to tolerate this abuse.”

Language testing fraud is not the only area of abuse the government is investigating; Brokenshire also raised concerns about international students working without permission. He said that one private further education college, the London School of Business and Finance, had 290 international students who worked and paid taxes last year, despite the fact that students at these types of colleges aren’t permitted to work at all under U.K immigration law. And some students in the university sector earned more than £20,000 (about $34,000) a year despite the fact that they are allowed to work no more than 20 hours a week when classes are in session. 

Brokenshire said that the worst abuse discovered so far seems to be occurring at the London campuses of universities located elsewhere in the country. He said that investigations are continuing and further action may follow.

Relations between university leaders and immigration authorities in the U.K. have been strained as universities have protested that while putting a stop to student visa abuse is all to the good, legitimate foreign students shouldn’t be counted in the government’s push to drive down overall immigration numbers. The number of students from outside the European Union at U.K. universities declined by 1 percent in 2012-13, the first such decline since record-keeping began in the mid-1990s. 

“Universities are committed to reducing any abuse of the student visa system and take immigration compliance very seriously," Sir Christopher Snowden, the president of Universities UK, said in a statement: 

“As Home Office studies have made clear, levels of student visa abuse in the university sector are very low compared to other education providers. They may well be even lower now given the significant investment that has taken place in universities in recent years on immigration compliance. Universities are estimated to be spending a total £67 million [more than $113 million] per year in this area," Snowden said.

“The Home Office must work with the institutions in question to address the issues identified, without negatively impacting international students and applicants at these universities. It is important that current international students at these institutions are reassured that they will not be affected by this action."

(UPDATE: The Home Office has issued guidance clarifying, among other things, that current students will not be affected.)

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