Skip to main content

ASU alumnus talks lessons on citizenship testing

ASU alumnus, Thom Brooks

ASU alumnus Thom Brooks

April 11, 2017

Many countries like the United States have introduced citizenship tests that migrants must pass to become a citizen.

Thom Brooks, Arizona State University alumnus and current professor of law and government with Durham University, took an in-depth look into the U.K’s citizenship test and had some startling results.

After he sat the British test first-hand, Brooks published the only comprehensive report into the U.K.’s test which has been cited repeatedly in the U.K.’s Parliament. In it, Brooks considers the lessons in how not to test for citizenship and how might the U.K. look to improve their test.

On April 19, Brooks will be honored as the School of Politics and Global Studies’ Distinguished Alumni Speaker for 2017. He will give a public lecture titled, "Can we test for citizenship? Lessons in what not to do."

Here, Brooks gives insight in to his experiences completing this report and what comes next.

Question: What interested you in citizenship tests?

Answer: Becoming a citizen is something most of us take for granted. We're either a citizen of a country because of our parents' national status or because we're born to a country. Our being a citizen of one place or another has an arbitrary character. Yet co-nationals share a social and political bond, but can we specify what this is — or even test for it?

Several countries like the United States and U.K. have citizenship tests as part of their legal requirements for anyone wanting to become American or British. This is something I know first-hand because I did it. After graduating from Arizona State University in 1999 with a MA in political science, I moved to Britain where I had to pass their test and the experience had a profound effect on me.

Q: How would you describe the experience of applying for and taking the test?

A: Confusing bordering on shambolic. Citizenship tests were brought in by several European countries post-9/11 as a means of providing some means of certifying that prospective citizens migrating from other countries buy into the values of their new state. A serious purpose that is backed up by neither much, if any, evidence.

The U.K.'s test is especially alarming. My research uncovered the fact it had "correct" answers that were untrue as it became outdated. There has never been a consultation to see if new migrants adapted any better because of passing the test and my claim it's "like a bad pub quiz" hit a chord with most people.

Q: After completing your report about the U.K.'s citizenship test, what happened next?

A: The day after I became a U.K. citizen (and keeping my American citizenship), I was interviewed by BBC Radio 4 about how the test should be changed. I recommended that some British history and culture should become included as well as basic points of law. A few days later then Prime Minister David Cameron announced a new test would be launched and U.K. history would become a larger part of it. Yet what the government produced was worse than before. Instead of testing knowledge about practical trivia it became centered on the purely trivial with questions about the height of the London Eye or who opened the first curry restaurant. It's become known as the British citizenship test few Brits can pass.

I published the only comprehensive report into the current test and recommended how it should be fixed. It was noted by over 300 media outlets worldwide and had extensive coverage in the U.K. The report has been noted at least half a dozen times in Parliament and received a few government responses. While not explicitly accepting their test has serious flaws, the government is committed to changing the test shortly. I like to think my report has contributed to this shift.

Q: What lessons can other countries like the U.S. take from your work on the "Life in the U.K." citizenship test?

A: Integration is a two-way street. While migrants have responsibilities, so too does the wider community. Using a test as a barrier and not a bridge is counterproductive. There is a value in a community's coming together to contest routinely their shared values and political institutions — and providing support to potential new members. This is not about open borders, but making borders work for communities.

In the U.K., much is made of the importance of English fluency and yet access to English classes can be very difficult to find in many urban areas. Migrants have a responsibility to meet the requirements, but there is more the government can do to facilitate their doing so — and so improve the ability of new citizens to become valued, active members of their community.

Moreover, there must be more engagement with the public about what is done in their name. While there are some who believe immigration rules are too loose, they become very surprised to see how restrictive they are in fact — and more than once a sceptic has been shocked to learn that under current rules he or she might be barred entry if a migrant. This is a fault of no one but politicians and a general bipartisan failure to communicate how the system works. Open dialogue is important and so too is knowledge of basic immigration rules — and too often both are in short supply. This is not healthy for democracy for old or new citizens alike.

More Local, national and global affairs


Man holding microphone

Assistant secretary of Indian affairs visits with students at ASU Labriola Center

Bryan Newland visited Arizona State University’s Tempe campus Monday to talk with students and tour a new library space. As…

February 20, 2024
Man and woman shaking hands

Stereotype of dominant male leader takes a hit

What does a leader look like? One long-held stereotype is that leaders are alpha males — dominant and forceful.  But does that…

February 16, 2024
Black father and child sitting on a couch with a dog next to them across from a woman smiling and taking notes.

Professor explores African Americans’ role in social work

Before professional social workers began serving the underserved, African Americans relied on a sustained tradition of self-help…

February 16, 2024