Many people today are apathetic. A key cause is lack of realism. It is unrealistic to believe that the world cannot be improved, but also unrealistic to believe that achieving change will be quick and easy. Both wrong perceptions lead to apathy.
16 June 2016
The hardest personal characteristics to understand are those you have never had yourself.
All my life, I have been insufferably curious, excited by the challenges of the world, and keen to achieve change in my own life and in wider society. Accordingly I have always found it frustrating when I encounter people who are apathetic, and who believe that they cannot improve their own lives or make a difference in the world.
One of the many voluntary projects I have been involved in since I retired is trying to get the UK government to introduce a Shariah compliant student finance scheme. As there was recently a government announcement about this, I used it as the subject of my June column in the magazine Islamic Finance News.
While composing the column, I realised that the student finance story has something important to say about the causes of apathy, and emphasised that aspect.
Apathy and disengagement are all too common today. Many people can see failings in the world but make no attempt to address them to make the world a better place. Why is this?
I believe the reason is that they hold one of two diametrically opposite views about the achievability of change, both of which are incorrect.
Both my own life experiences over six decades, and my knowledge of history, have taught me that the world is changed regularly by people who have a clear vision of what they want to achieve. However, achieving such change often takes many years, during which progress may appear to be minimal or zero.
I could cite an endless list of examples, but will give just one. It was in 1885 that the Indian National Congress was founded, with the aim of freeing India from British Imperial rule. However Indian independence was not achieved until 1947, some 62 years later.
The most recent experience from my own life concerns Shariah compliant student finance.
In the UK students have to pay fees of up to £9,000 per year for university first degree courses. To avoid deterring the poor, the government provides loans to all students. The loan amount repayable is linked to the retail prices index, and the loans also carry a positive rate of interest above inflation. Repayments are made by deductions of 9% from income above £21,000 per year, until the loan plus accumulated interest and inflation uplift is fully repaid. If the person has not paid off their loan after 30 years, the unpaid balance of the loan plus inflation uplift and interest is waived.
As the above details show, the student loan scheme is very generous, with income contingent repayments and waiver of any outstanding balance after 30 years. Encouragingly, the data on students’ backgrounds shows that the loan scheme has not deterred poorer students from applying to university. However, the scheme is not Shariah compliant. Accordingly, for religious reasons some Muslims refuse to take out student loans, and some may therefore not attend university at all, damaging their life chances.
From the inception of the student loan scheme, Muslims have been lobbying the government for a Shariah compliant alternative.
I was involved in private meetings with civil servants as far back as 2011, modelling an alternative finance scheme that would use commodity murabaha transactions. In October 2013 speaking to the World Islamic Economic Forum in London, Prime Minister David Cameron committed the UK government to offering Shariah compliant student finance.
Last month a Government white paper [Box 2:11 on page 60] stated “We plan to legislate for the Secretary of State to offer an alternative [Shariah compliant] student finance product alongside his current powers to offer grants and loans.” However, given the need for legislation, the earliest I would expect students to be able to access such finance is September 2017. That is more than six years after my work in 2011.
The positive message is that change can be achieved, but it requires determination, perseverance a clear message, and the ability to work with all allies who are interested in achieving the same objectives as you are. It will almost always take much longer than you would like!
I can think of many instances in my own life where achieving things has required belief in the possibility of change, combined with accepting that achieving the desired change will be a long slow process.
Just two examples of how persistence pays are set out below.
Around the time this network was formed by another partner, I realised that for client credibility as an expert on treasury taxation, it would be a major advantage to be a member of the Association of Corporate Treasurers (ACT). Joining that body would demonstrate proper knowledge of the treasury issues large companies face, and give greater credibility to my tax advice.
Accordingly I personally took, and passed, the examinations for associate member of the ACT in early 1995. Forever afterwards I advised others in PwC involved in finance and treasury taxation to do the same. My evangelising gained greater weight when I served as the PwC UK finance and treasury from 2001-2005.
The outcome of my evangelising was that PwC built up a cadre of ACT members amongst its tax practice. The result was that clients recognised that the PwC was distinctively better than our competitors, demonstrated by industry surveys. However getting to that point took almost a decade of evangelising.
When we started in 2005, the Forum had very limited public profile, and few people actively engaged. Over the last 11 years our public profile, and the reach of our activities, has continued to grow due to our persistence in holding events and publicising what we do.