A round of Cuba Libres!

Keyboard activists plot Cuba's political future, while Tories salute Miliband's apology

In the week Fidel Castro declared he would not complete his half century as leader of Cuba, the blogosphere said farewell to the longest ever serving communist leader.

Conservative Party Retile, who fears an “endless hagiographic encomia” from the BBC and Channel 4 following the announcement, writes: “Rather like one of his speeches, you rationally knew it would come to an end at some point, but had trouble really believing that it [would].”

Daniel Finkelstein brings together a collection of, what he describes as, some of the best reporting of Cuba under Castro's leadership, including Arthur Miller's account of when he met the bearded one.

Luke Akehurst bids farewell to Castro and looks to Cuba’s future: “Maybe the communists would win, but personally I hope Cubans would choose a third way which kept Cuba's commitment to free healthcare and education while bringing in freedom of speech, political pluralism and an end to the command economy.” Perhaps some sort of utopia will suffice.

Dave Osler uses his experiences of living in Cuba to weigh up the pros and cons of Castro’s regime. He concludes by describing his own dystopia: “We need to stress that a democratic opening is essential if Cuba is to avoid the build up of discontent on the scale of 1980s Eastern Europe, and the eventual introduction of a particularly savage brand of neoliberal capitalism.

“I’d hate to go back in a few years and find that heart-stoppingly beautiful Old Havana had reverted to its former role as one big extended casino-cum-whorehouse theme park for gringos.”

David Miliband’s apology on behalf of the government for cover-ups over US rendition flights was greeted by praise by some unlikely sources. Both Iain Dale and the Daily Mail’s Benedict Brogan showed support, the later writes: “His public performances have been criticised, often justifiably, as too glib or juvenile, but he hit the right note, and it was refreshing to have humility rather than swagger at the despatch box.”

The good will across the political divide extended to Tom Watson’s blog. When John Redwood responded to a Watson post, Ellee Seymour wonders if it marks a turning point in political bogging and if it is the first time an MP has posted a comment on another MP’s blog.

The Labour MP had quoted Redwood’s statement on the Conservatives’ view on the nationalisation of Northern Rock. The interaction was supported by other political bloggers, including Tim Ireland and Curly, for its civility. A far cry from the oft-raucous Commons floor.

Owen Walker is a journalist for a number of titles within Financial Times Business, primarily focussing on pensions. He recently graduated from Cardiff University’s newspaper journalism post-graduate course and is cursed by a passion for Crystal Palace FC.
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It's a stab in the dark: the myth of predicting your student loan repayments

Even the company responsible for collecting repayments admits that it can't tell students what they'll be.

In response to renewed calls to overhaul the student finance system, the universities minister Jo Johnson insisted last week that the "current system works". He pointed out that a university degree boosts "lifetime income by between £170,000 and £250,000".

What he failed to mention is that not even the people administering the loan system can tell students what they will be expected to pay back each month, because they can't work out what they'll earn. 

When asked by the New Statesman why it had pulled an online calculator designed to tell students what their repayments would be, the Student Loans Company (SLC) said it wasn't "possible to answer customers' questions about how long it will take to repay their loan or how much they will owe at a point in the future because there is no accurate way of predicting their future earning".

The confusion around student loans stems from the fact that, unlike loans from banks, their repayment is income contingent.

Until May last year, the SLC had a calculator on its website which students and parents could use to predict how much they may have to repay in the future. But after Andrew McGettigan, a higher education journalist, emailed the SLC noting that the calculator did not take into account gender inequality in future salaries, it was swiftly taken down. 

It was in response to queries about this calculator from the New Statesman that the SLC admitted that there was no accurate way to predict future repayments. The organisation added that it was "exploring new and better ways to present information" to its customers. 

This admission appears to undermine Johnson’s “fair and equitable” description of the student finance system. If even SLC can't say what repayments could look like, how do we know? 

Further controversy around student loan repayments is expected when a report is published later this year by the Department for Education on student finance and expenditure. This is expected to highlight the discrepancy between the maintenance loans students receive and rising rent costs. 

There are still a range of unofficial student loan calculators on the internet, but many use overly optimistic projections for future earnings. McGettigan says this is because they are based on salary trends from the 1980s to the 2010s. He also adds that these unofficial calculators are all based on the official one that was removed – and that they also do not take into account the impact of Brexit. It's a stab in the dark.

The SLC notes that "every student who applies for their student finance online must navigate a page of key repayment information that outlines six points". Student loans are inherently complicated by design, but as Amatey Doku, NUS vice president (higher education), makes clear, this has consequences for fair access to higher education. “We know that BME and poorer students are more worried about high levels of debt than any other group, but the current system does not provide adequate support for those about to enter it.”

Students seeking advice from an independent body will be hard-pressed to find one. The independent Student Finance Taskforce set up by the coalition government in 2011, which sought “to reassure potential students about what they can expect when applying for university and beyond”, was quietly discontinued and never replaced. 

Read more: Jeremy Corbyn's opponents are going down a blind alley on tuition fees

Further confusion surrounds the government’s framing of student finance to sixth formers. Beyond the debate surrounding tuition fees, there is the assumption that has never been made explicit by either political party, which is that students who have a household income of more than £25,000 are expected to have some form of financial support from their families for living costs.

Are parents made aware of this before their children apply to university? Unlike in America, where parents are encouraged to put money away into a “college fund”, the British government never openly encourages parents to save specifically to send their children to university. 

Although there is “no specific date” for its publishing, the Department for Education's report is is believed to argue that, much like the NUS’s debt report did in 2015, that the current system results in poorer students having to take excessive part-time work during the university term. Some also have to take on commercial loans. The stress of both can have an adverse effect on students' mental health.

All this, and not even the organisation responsible for collecting repayments can tell students how much they will be paying back.