Echoing Roosevelt: Matthew Barzun greets President Obama at RAF Fairford in Gloucestershire on the eve of a NATO summit in Wales, 3 September. Photo: Getty
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Matthew Barzun: Despite ebola and Isis, could it be that we are living in the best of times?

Why are we intent on fixing our lens on the chaotic? And why do we insist on trying to weave a grand narrative out of mostly unrelated things? asks the US Ambassador to Britain. 

We live in challenging, complex, even confusing times. Our world is in constant flux. Charles Dickens’s description of the French Revolution seems just as appropriate today: it is the worst of times. Indeed, it may be even more true now, as the changes are global, rather than confined to one or two countries. Newspaper headlines suggest as much. They are littered with demoralising words such as “beheadings”, “aggression”, “hatred” and “fever”. Of course, ISIL is engaged in barbarity in the Middle East that is reminiscent of some of the most grotesque of the 20th century, while the ebola virus poses a global public health threat on a scale as large as anything we’ve seen in recent decades.

At the same time, the number of refugees and internally displaced people presents a great humanitarian challenge. And human rights violations abound in many parts of the world. But here is an equally valid and, I concede, sweeping narrative that suggests this is also the best of times.

It is a time of levelling. The world has reduced extreme poverty by half since 1990. Global primary education for boys and girls is now equal.

It is a time of enduring. The number of deaths among children under five has been cut in half since 1990, meaning about 17,000 fewer children die each day. And mothers are surviving at a nearly equal rate.

It is a time of flourishing. Deaths from malaria dropped by 42 per cent between 2000 and 2012. HIV infections are declining in most regions.

It is a time of strengthening. Africa is above the poverty line for the first time. Tens of millions have been lifted out of poverty in China. The debt burden on developing coun­tries has dropped 75 per cent since 2000.

It is a time of healing. The ozone layer is showing signs of recovery thanks to global action. And all the while, the technological and communications revolution is making more people better informed than at any time in history.

So why are we intent on fixing our lens on the chaotic? And why do we insist on trying to weave a grand narrative out of mostly unrelated things? Do we believe there’s a common unravelling force at work behind the ebola tragedy, Russia’s incursion into Ukraine and the independence campaign in Scotland? My guess is that it might have more to do with how we feel than how things are.

My grandfather Jacques Barzun was a cultural historian who wrote a book called From Dawn to Decadence, in which he argued that western culture had been in decline for many decades. Less crotchety than it sounds. It was his observation that the culture had moved from confidence, to self-consciousness, to a time of “anti-” and “post-” prefixes; but he also believed that something would take its place.

Whether he was exactly right or not, there is a consensus that the world is undergoing a period of extraordinary transformation. We are experiencing a “pre-” that we can’t name yet. Understandably, we feel insecure and have a deep urge for reassurance. One reaction has been to suggest that we are in need of a grand master plan to re-ravel the world, and that President Obama’s lack of it makes him small and inconsequential.

But is a grand master plan what we really want? Vladimir Putin has one. Do we agree with him that it makes him look big? What is the best way to lead and govern in times of remarkable change?

Here’s what Teddy Roosevelt said at the dawn of the progressive era: “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” And one of America’s great unsung heroes, John “Gil” Winant, ambassador to Britain during the Second World War, explained in 1946 his approach to leadership in chaotic times as, “Doing the day’s work day by day, doing a little, adding a little, broadening our bases wanting not only for ourselves but for others also, a fairer chance for all people everywhere . . .”

When President Obama articulated our military policy at West Point this spring, he spoke from this same American strain. It’s a policy that has been consistent throughout his presidency. And one of the critical pieces of it is the unprecedented global alliance that the president leads, and the extraordinary results it is getting. Co-ordinated air strikes on ISIL are depleting the terror network’s capabilities, while airdrops are helping to relieve the humanitarian crises it has created. An international sanctions regime is holding Russia to account for its aggressive land-grab in Ukraine, and forcing Iran to come in from the cold over its nuclear ambitions.

Work behind the scenes has also produced some other notable successes, such as the transformation of Myanmar from firm dictatorship to fledgling democracy. In times of uncertainty, this approach of leadership matched with partnership amounts to global earthquake protection against the seismic events that must inevitably come.

It is impossible to plan for every eventuality. And it is hardly fair to accuse the US of not having a highly detailed blueprint but simultaneously warn us that we should be taking into account our allies’ opinions and concerns. We take our responsibilities seriously but cannot be responsible for everything that happens. Other international actors make choices for good and for ill. So even the most far-sighted diplomacy must sometimes be reactive.

President Obama was elected to bring much-needed change and he has delivered on that promise. But he has also proved extremely adept at managing change. His ability to do so, making America more flexible, nimble and creative in response to global threats, has made the US and the world more peaceful, more prosperous and more just. 

Matthew Barzun is the US ambassador to the United Kingdom. @MatthewBarzun

This article first appeared in the 15 October 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Isis can be beaten

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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.