The "Life in the UK" test has morphed into a barrier to immigration

Where once it was designed to help immigrants integrate, now it just keeps them out.

The Life in the United Kingdom citizenship test has become an integral part of British immigration policy. One million tests have been taken since its launch in 2005. About 150,000 people sat the test last year. Passing the test is a requirement for permanent residency and citizenship. Alternatively, a short course, "English for Speakers of Other Languages with Citizenship", may be completed although this can take much longer and is more expensive. The Life in the UK test takes 45 minutes and it has 24 questions. Applicants must answer 18 or more correctly to pass.

I published the only comprehensive report into the test and its uses for immigration policy in June. The report launch was held in Durham Castle and uploaded on YouTube. My findings were covered in over 275 newspapers and media outlets across the UK and internationally, including Comedy Central and Mock the Week. However, my report was no laughing matter for the government as I revealed the test to be impractical, inconsistent and contain significant gender imbalance rendering it "unfit for purpose" and like "a bad pub quiz".

The Life in the UK test has always included what many of us might consider trivia. Information such as the number of MPs in the House of Commons or how to claim a National Insurance number is not probably known by most British citizens. But the test has gone from a test about practical trivia to the purely trivial. Information about how to contact an ambulance, how to report a crime or how to register with a GP has been removed. Instead, applicants are required to know the year that the Emperor Claudius invaded Britain, the approximate age of Big Ben’s clock and the height of the London Eye in feet and meters. Consider the following dates in the life of Sake Dean Mahomet that must be memorised by rote: birth (1759), first came to the UK (1782), eloped to Ireland (1786), opened first curry house (1810) and death (1851). Furthermore, it must be known that he married a woman from Ireland named Jane Daly, that his curry house was called the Hindoostane Coffee House and it was established on George Street in London. The test has never included so much impractical information before – and the new handbook has about 3,000 facts to be memorised. And remember: only 24 will be covered on the test.

Curiously for a handbook written and approved by politicians, the number of MPs has always been a bit of a problem. The first edition was published in late 2004 and stated there were 645 MPs. This was untrue: there were 646. So why this mistake? The best explanation I found for this was that only 645 constituencies were contested in the 2005 General Election. This was because a candidate in the 646thconstituency – Staffordshire South – had died and so that election was postponed. But there were still 646 (and not 645) MPs. In 2007, the second edition of the test handbook was published. This time the government confirmed the correct number of 646. However, this soon changed to 650 MPs and this change was never incorporated on the test. It was the case – when I sat the test in 2009 – that the "correct" answer to this and many other questions were factually untrue.

The new handbook published this year has solved this problem through omission. Applicants are no longer required to know how many MPs sit in Westminster. Many of us might think this a welcome change: after all, if MPs have been confused about this, why expect the British public to do any better? And why should this information be a requirement for citizenship anyway? Nevertheless, all applicants are still required to know the number of elected representatives in the Welsh Assembly, Scottish Parliament and Northern Ireland Assembly.

The inconsistencies do not end there. Various courts from youth courts and beyond are mentioned, but the UK Supreme Court is left out. Another inconsistency concerns telephone numbers. It may be hard to believe, but the new test handbook requires applicants to memorize telephone numbers. There are five to know and none are 999 or 111. The five include the National Domestic Violence Helpline and the HMRC self-assessment helpline. The final three are the front offices of the House of Commons, the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament – omitting (forgetting?) the Northern Ireland Assembly at Stormont in Belfast.

The Life in the UK test suffers from serious gender imbalance. For example, the new test includes a substantial chapter about British history. This chapter lists the dates of birth for about 30 men, but only four women. Neither of the Queen’s birthdays is included. No women artists are mentioned: we are required to know Damien Hirst won the Turner Prize, but not Tracey Emin. No women musicians or singers are noted. No women poets have any lines for memorising among the several scattered throughout the handbook. No women are included in a long list of famous scientists and inventors. Nor are these the only strange omissions: LS Lowry is left out and there are no lines included by Robert Burns.

Nor does this gender imbalance appear to be a simple oversight. A Home Office announcement on the day the new test launched commented on how the test now includes a chapter about British history. The Home Office announcement states the importance for immigrants to know the achievements of the people who have shaped Britain – naming nine men and no women.

My report provides 12 recommendations for how the test can be reformed and avoid these problems in future. These include the need for greater care to be taken to ensure greater balance and consistency. I also recommend the need for a public consultation. This is now long overdue. There has been no such consultation since the test was launched in 2005. The test has now undergone three editions with one million tests sat. It is high time some effort was made to re-examine whether the test has lived up to its promise and how it might be further improved. Any such consultation must include engagement with people like me – immigrants to Britain who have sat the test. It is shocking that no public effort has made to consult with those who have sat the test and become British citizens. Many of the mistakes we can find in the test might have been avoided if ministers had experienced immigration first-hand and sat similar tests.

Finally, it is worth reconsidering the purpose of the test. One model is a barrier where the test serves as an obstacle to citizenship. A second model is a bridge where it is more of a formality confirming common membership. Should the test be a barrier or a bridge? For the moment, it is neither fish nor fowl or platypus. To best reform the test, we must ask what purpose we want it to serve. I believe a sensible discussion about this is possible and the positive, widespread coverage of my report gives me hope for the future. If we wait any longer, the test’s problems will only be exacerbated. The time to act is now.

This piece originally appeared on the LSE's British Politics and Policy blog, and is reposted here with permission.

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This Ada Lovelace Day, let’s celebrate women in tech while confronting its sexist culture

In an industry where men hold most of the jobs and write most of the code, celebrating women's contributions on one day a year isn't enough. 

Ada Lovelace wrote the world’s first computer program. In the 1840s Charles Babbage, now known as the “father of the computer”, designed (though never built) the “Analytical Engine”, a machine which could accurately and reproducibly calculate the answers to maths problems. While translating an article by an Italian mathematician about the machine, Lovelace included a written algorithm for which would allow the engine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers.

Around 170 years later, Whitney Wolfe, one of the founders of dating app Tinder, was allegedly forced to resign from the company. According to a lawsuit she later filed against the app and its parent company, she had her co-founder title removed because, the male founders argued, it would look “slutty”, and because “Facebook and Snapchat don’t have girl founders. It just makes it look like Tinder was some accident". (They settled out of court.)

Today, 13 October, is Ada Lovelace day – an international celebration of inspirational women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It’s lucky we have this day of remembrance, because, as Wolfe’s story demonstrates, we also spend a lot of time forgetting and sidelining women in tech. In the wash of pale male founders of the tech giants that rule the industry,we don't often think about the women that shaped its foundations: Judith Estrin, one of the designers of TCP/IP, for example, or Radia Perlman, inventor of the spanning-tree protocol. Both inventions sound complicated, and they are – they’re some of the vital building blocks that allow the internet to function. 

And yet David Streitfield, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, someow felt it accurate to write in 2012: “Men invented the internet. And not just any men. Men with pocket protectors. Men who idolised Mr Spock and cried when Steve Jobs died.”

Perhaps we forget about tech's founding women because the needle has swung so far into the other direction. A huge proportion – perhaps even 90 per cent - of the world’s code is written by men. At Google, women fill 17 per cent of technical roles. At Facebook, 15 per cent. Over 90 per cent of the code respositories on Github, an online service used throughout the industry, are owned by men. Yet it's also hard to believe that this erasure of women's role in tech is completely accidental. As Elissa Shevinsky writes in the introduction to a collection of essays on gender in tech, Lean Out: “This myth of the nerdy male founder has been perpetuated by men who found this story favourable."

Does it matter? It’s hard to believe that it doesn’t. Our society is increasingly defined and delineated by code and the things it builds. Small slip-ups, like the lack of a period tracker on the original Apple Watch, or fitness trackers too big for some women’s wrists, gesture to the fact that these technologies are built by male-dominated teams, for a male audience.

In Lean Out, one essay written by a Twitter-based “start-up dinosaur” (don’t ask) explains how dangerous it is to allow one small segment of society to built the future for the rest of us:

If you let someone else build tomorrow, tomorrow will belong to someone else. They will build a better tomorrow for everyone like them… For tomorrow to be for everyone, everyone needs to be the one [sic] that build it.

So where did all the women go? How did we get from a rash of female inventors to a situation where the major female presence at an Apple iPhone launch is a model’s face projected onto a screen and photoshopped into a smile by a male demonstrator? 

Photo: Apple.

The toxic culture of many tech workplaces could be a cause or an effect of the lack of women in the industry, but it certainly can’t make make it easy to stay. Behaviours range from the ignorant - Martha Lane-Fox, founder of, often asked “what happens if you get pregnant?” at investors' meetings - to the much more sinister. An essay in Lean Out by Katy Levinson details her experiences of sexual harassment while working in tech: 

I have had interviewers attempt to solicit sexual favors from me mid-interview and discuss in significant detail precisely what they would like to do. All of these things have happened either in Silicon Valley working in tech, in an educational institution to get me there, or in a technical internship.

Others featured in the book joined in with the low-level sexism and racism  of their male colleagues in order to "fit in" and deflect negative attention. Erica Joy writes that while working in IT at the University of Alaska as the only woman (and only black person) on her team, she laughed at colleagues' "terribly racist and sexist jokes" and "co-opted their negative attitudes”. 

The casual culture and allegedly meritocratic hierarchies of tech companies may actually be encouraging this discriminatory atmosphere. HR and the strict reporting procedures of large corporates at least give those suffering from discrimination a place to go. A casual office environment can discourage reporting or calling out prejudiced humour or remarks. Brook Shelley, a woman who transitioned while working in tech, notes: "No one wants to be the office mother". So instead, you join in and hope for the best. 

And, of course, there's no reason why people working in tech would have fewer issues with discrimination than those in other industries. A childhood spent as a "nerd" can also spawn its own brand of misogyny - Katherine Cross writes in Lean Out that “to many of these men [working in these fields] is all too easy to subconciously confound women who say ‘this is sexist’ with the young girls who said… ‘You’re gross and a creep and I’ll never date you'". During GamerGate, Anita Sarkeesian was often called a "prom queen" by trolls. 

When I spoke to Alexa Clay, entrepreneur and co-author of the Misfit Economy, she confirmed that there's a strange, low-lurking sexism in the start-up economy: “They have all very open and free, but underneath it there's still something really patriarchal.” Start-ups, after all, are a culture which celebrates risk-taking, something which women are societally discouraged from doing. As Clay says, 

“Men are allowed to fail in tech. You have these young guys who these old guys adopt and mentor. If his app doesn’t work, the mentor just shrugs it off. I would not be able ot get away with that, and I think women and minorities aren't allowed to take the same amount of risks, particularly in these communities. If you fail, no one's saying that's fine.

The conclusion of Lean Out, and of women in tech I have spoken to, isn’t that more women, over time, will enter these industries and seamlessly integrate – it’s that tech culture needs to change, or its lack of diversity will become even more severe. Shevinsky writes:

The reason why we don't have more women in tech is not because of a lack of STEM education. It's because too many high profile and influential individuals and subcultures within the tech industry have ignored or outright mistreated women applicants and employees. To be succinct—the problem isn't women, it's tech culture.

Software engineer Kate Heddleston has a wonderful and chilling metaphor about the way we treat women in STEM. Women are, she writes, the “canary in the coal mine”. If one dies, surely you should take that as a sign that the mine is uninhabitable – that there’s something toxic in the air. “Instead, the industry is looking at the canary, wondering why it can’t breathe, saying ‘Lean in, canary, lean in!’. When one canary dies they get a new one because getting more canaries is how you fix the lack of canaries, right? Except the problem is that there isn't enough oxygen in the coal mine, not that there are too few canaries.” We need more women in STEM, and, I’d argue, in tech in particular, but we need to make sure the air is breatheable first. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.