Universal basic income (UBI) is not a new idea. Thomas Paine, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States introduced the idea of a guaranteed minimum income. It’s an idea that Bertrand Russel and Martin Luther King have both spoken positively about. Wikipedia’s article on basic income seems to have more people backing the idea than there are people backing England’s cricket team to get a positive result from the Ashes this winter.
So, what is the idea? Is it practical? If it was introduced, what impact would it have on education?
99% invisible, an independent radio show and website, have looked at the experiment Finland are currently carrying out on UBI and explain it as: the idea a government would pay all citizens, employed or not, a flat monthly sum to cover basic needs. This funding would come with no strings attached or special conditions, which would remove any potential stigma associated with receiving it. In short: it would be free money.
Advocates of the idea say ‘free money who wouldn’t want that?!’ More serious advocates of the idea point out this could potentially save huge costs and cut bureaucracy involved in the welfare state. They also think UBI would give people security in covering their basic needs, where jobs may become more difficult to secure with the rise of automation and technology. Indeed, a completely non-hysterical headline from the Independent at the start of October read: Richard Branson calls for universal basic income because robots are taking people’s jobs.
The NewStatesman quotes Shadow chancellor John McDonnell calling universal basic income “an idea whose time may well have come”
Finland are currently running a trial of universal basic income and I would recommend the 99% invisible article which explains how it was set up and is running.
It would be a bold move for any country to implement – a commission of the Germany parliament in 2013 concluded it was unrealistic for Germany. Reasons included:
- Decrease in motivation to work
- Basic income maybe insufficient for some citizens
- Cost of restructuring the current system
- Increase in immigration
As a complex idea and a big shift from where we are currently, it doesn’t look likely this will be rolled out within the next few years. University College London have suggested universal basic services as a more sustainable option. So, if we did move towards a version of UBI, what impact would it have on education?
In the UK, the pressures over exam grades and performance measures have narrowed our outcomes to being focussed on the quantifiable, year on year comparisons and accountability measures. I think part of this is down to education being seen as requisite for a job. The idea being a job gives someone a basic income and that gives a certain amount of freedom of choice.
I think the narrowing of our curriculum has damaged intellectual curiosity. I’ve heard hundreds of children ask me “will this be in the exam?” before deciding how much effort they will put into a task. This is moving up our education system into universities. Combined with the fees, there is a growing feeling of learning needing to be applicable and useful in an exam or job. There is a lack of learning from being curious about something. I think the system focuses on answers rather than good questions which can lead to interesting answers.
I believe the work Action Tutoring is doing is vital in the current context within which we exist. There is a huge disparity in extra help pupils receive depending on their background. The lack of benchmark qualifications at 16 can have an impact for years to come.
What I would like to see is the context change a little. I’m excited about how Action Tutoring could benefit pupils in an era where exams are not the central focus of education. Tutors could then bring out and nurture curiosity and creativity. Whether that’s a future with UBI or something else, I’m not sure. I’ll be keeping an eye on the Finnish experiment though.