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UBI Lab The Universal Is Here

With universities not doing enough to support students’ wellbeing, we explore how Universal Basic Income could significantly benefit young people.

Thousands of students enter university in the hope that their expensive investment in their own education will provide them with a fulfilling student experience and a stable job in the future. But both expectations are often not realised. Many students sustain themselves through precarious work such as on zero-hour contracts. We also shouldn’t underestimate the financial hardship young people and students face due to high levels of debt, rising levels of mental health problems and low job prospects.

Students would benefit substantially from a Universal Basic Income (UBI), which is a model of citizen social security that gives everyone a regular and unconditional basic income per week or month as a safety net. It places trust in people, as vitally it is not means-tested and you can spend it in your best interests. No one who needs help will miss out. It would not replace all benefits, just the unfair and highly means-tested ones like Universal Credit. UBI would provide students a larger social and economic safety net and would allow young people to take new opportunities. Students would be able to focus on their studies.

Students’ Union Senate

As a postgraduate student at the University of Manchester, I know how hard the past year has been for young people and how much a UBI would benefit them, just like many other groups in society. It is why I decided to table a policy motion at the University of Manchester Students’ Union (SU) Senate in May, which passed with 83% in favour, 7% against and 10% abstentions. Fellow students agreed that universities should be run like social institutions that look after their students and local communities. They should not be organised like cold-hearted businesses that care more for profit than student experience and welfare. This can also be seen in how the university has dealt with racism.

The policy means the SU will promote UBI at national student level and that the SU will push the university to research economic ideas like UBI which would help to diminish poverty, mental health problems and reliance on precarious work. UBI is only one policy out of many that is needed to create a fairer society.

Guy Standing speaking at the Festival of Debate for UBI Lab Sheffield

Guy Standing speaking at the Festival of Debate for UBI Lab Sheffield

Job Prospects

Job prospects have imploded. In March 2020, the Institute of Student Employers found that 27% of graduate recruiters would be recruiting fewer graduates in the near future. Between July and September 2020, youth unemployment had increased by 15% from pre-pandemic levels. During the last global recession, the group hardest hit were indeed young people. At the time, unemployment was over 1 million in the age-group 16-24. A universal basic income would diminish this substantially.

With worse job prospects, students are likely to stay in precarious and unstable work or as unemployed. As things stand, instead of students’ economic safety nets growing larger and more profound, they will become weaker.

Financial Pressures with Social Consequences

A large number of students who are financially precarious miss out on grants and extra student financial support. For example, the University of Manchester’s mostly government-funded Living Cost Support Fund operates a principle of individual responsibility to start a course with a budget for the period above acknowledgment that the student needs help. The university does not want to help all students; Living Cost Support Fund application forms ask for finance checks galore. By contrast, they are more than happy to take your course fees without checking your finances. It feels like the university cares more for their money than your education and wellbeing. Many end up relying on overdrafts, due to not having enough financial support from the government or the university.

Along with diminishing economic and social support, growing debt, and job insecurity, there are the feelings and social consequences that poverty and economic instability create, such as alienation from other students and mental health problems. These factors will impact the grades attained by students, as their studies will be affected by economic and social instability.

Greater Opportunities

With UBI, students would be able to enjoy university life more because they would be substantially more stable in economic and social terms. There would also be greater opportunities for all young people, not just those who attend university. Children currently living in poverty – such as the 200,000 children in Greater Manchester – will potentially be able to go onto higher education, widening university participation.

This is another reason why I believe students like me need to advocate and search for new economic ideas that can lift people out of poverty and economic precariousness. It is our duty to hold universities to account to support students and surrounding communities, so they act more like social institutions. Passing student union motions to support the idea of UBI is one way to do this. As a student, I know how powerful students are because we can mobilise collectively and often have a hopeful belief that a more equal world is possible. So, it is important that we make ideas like UBI known in student circles and beyond.

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