Ministers were poised five years ago to offer a route to a reprieve for thousands of international students who may have been wrongly accused of cheating, but the plan was derailed by a government reshuffle, the Guardian has learned.
The former home secretary Sajid Javid had asked officials to devise a system whereby students who believed their visas had been cancelled in error as a result of unfair cheating allegations could request a one-stop internal review of their case, sources have revealed.
Officials had hammered out a possible solution for those who had been wrongly caught up in the Home Office’s decision to issue a blanket visa cancellation to 35,000 students. However, they were left waiting for Downing Street approval in July 2019, when Theresa May was replaced by Boris Johnson as prime minister. Javid was replaced by Priti Patel as home secretary, and the proposals were mothballed.
Details of how tantalisingly close the government came to resolving this simmering immigration scandal emerged as students continue trying to clear their names, a decade after tens of thousands were thrown off their courses.
In 2014 a BBC documentary revealed widespread cheating at test centres offering the language tests that international students were required to take to renew their visas. As a result of these allegations the Home Office revoked the visas of about 35,000 students and told them they were ineligible to continue studying in the UK, meaning that they had wasted thousands of pounds on fees; 2,500 students were deported and 7,200 left the country after being warned that they faced arrest and detention if they stayed.
Many have spent the last decade trying to get immigration courts to review the Home Office’s cancellation of their visas so they can return to their studies in the UK. The process is very expensive and time-consuming, but at least 3,700 have won appeals.
In 2019, the department’s then permanent secretary, Philip Rutnam, told MPs that officials were aware there were people who “may have been treated harshly in this whole process”, adding that the existence of individuals “who continue to protest their innocence is a subject of real concern to us”.
In a written statement on 23 July 2019 Javid told MPs that he was aware some students had been unfairly accused.
“There have remained concerns that some people who did not cheat may have been caught up and I am aware that some people found it hard to challenge the accusations against them,” he wrote, adding that he was looking at the option of making it possible for “for those who feel they have been wronged to be able to ask for their case to be reviewed. We intend to make further announcements about this and will update the House in due course.”
Javid planned to introduce a swift internal administrative review process so people who felt they had been unfairly treated would be able to ask the Home Office to look again at their cases. This would have provided an alternative to attempting to mount an expensive appeal in an immigration tribunal.
The next day, before he was able to make further announcements, the May administration was replaced by a new government and the new prime minister appointed Javid to a new role as chancellor of the exchequer.
Officials at the Home Office knew it would be complex and expensive to introduce an internal administrative review, but had been under instructions from Javid to find a way to make it work.
“The process came very close to being introduced when there was a home secretary who was sympathetic, but then there was a change of government with different priorities. No one was very keen on the idea,” a source said.
The Labour MP for East Ham, Stephen Timms, who has been campaigning on this issue since 2015, said it was “catastrophic” that the initiative was never implemented.
“If a mechanism had been put in place the students would have had a chance to put their lives back in place after five years of utter misery. Instead they’ve had 10 years of utter misery and many of them are still waiting to clear their names,” he said.
Shana Shaikh came to the UK in 2011 from India to study for an MBA, and was accused by the Home Office in 2016 of cheating in an English language test. Her visa was cancelled and she was unable to finish her studies; she is still fighting to clear her name. She was upset to learn the Home Office had abandoned a possible solution. “It’s really, really heartbreaking to hear we were so close. It’s as if politicians put no value on our lives. We can’t get that wasted time back. It has been a nightmare for us all,” she said.
Priti Patel was contacted for comment.