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Social Sustainability: Addressing Education Inequality

By Hollie Ryan

Monday 20 November 2017 Student Journalists

The first thing that comes to most people's minds when they hear 'sustainability' and 'climate change' tends to be 'looking after the environment' and 'saving the polar bears'. While both relate to sustainability, there is much more to the challenge than the environment.

(Division between rich and poor in Sao Paulo. Photo: Tuca Vieira)

In fact, there are three key principles of sustainability: social, environmental and economic. The one that often gets neglected and least understood is the social side, which focuses around global inequality.

To give you some perspective on global inequality (Oxfam 2017):

  • Just eight men own the same wealth as the 3.6 billion people who make up the poorest half of humanity

  • 7/10 people live in a country which has seen a rise in inequality in the last 30 years

  • It will take 170 years for women to be paid the same as men

  • In Vietnam the country's richest man earns more in a day than the poorest person earns in 10 years

  • A FTSE100 CEO earns as much in a year as 10,000 people working in garment factories in Bangladesh.

It's clear to see from these statistics that global inequality is a huge problem, caused by global unsustainable development. The 2015-2030 UN Global Goals have been set out to address creating sustainable development, and Goal 10 – reduced inequalities – is specifically focused on this problem.

Sustainable development goals

The UK has the 7th most unequal incomes of 30 countries in the developed world (OECD), with a gini coefficient of 0.36, and 10.9 per cent relative income poverty, as of 2015. This particularly effects the younger generations in the UK, with 30 per cent of children classed as poor (DWP). Relative poverty - the condition in which people lack the minimum amount of income needed to maintain the average standard of living in the society they live – is the main problem in the UK, and is a huge barrier for young people accessing and being successful in post-16 education.

The NUS Poverty Commission, which was launched in September 2017, aims to address barriers those that the working-class and student's living in relative poverty face. Goal 4 of the UN Global Goals aims to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education.

There are currently many barriers to post-16 education for young people in the UK, however these are not inevitable. One of the biggest reasons many students don't go on to higher education is because they don't know anyone who has done the same, so don't understand how it can benefit them as an individual.

If your parents didn't go to university, you're unlikely to have the encouragement to go by your family, and similarly if you live in a deprived area where no one in your social circle has gone, it might not even be something you consider.


Without support from family, schools play a key role in encouraging young people to further their education. This is why it is so important that schools provide advice and information on the different education paths available to them once they finish GCSEs, not only for university but also the opportunities of apprenticeships.

As someone who has experienced doing both, I believe that they equally great paths to take, it depends on the type of person you are and the career you would like to focus on. So while schools should be supporting student's with UCAS or apprenticeship applications, they shouldn't be forcing students down the university route. It is about providing the support and showing the different paths student's can take, and the idea that there is not just one depending on your social background.

This works both ways, with students feeling pressured by their parents to go to university because it's the traditional way, when really, they feel they are more suited to an apprenticeship.

Another barrier which prevents students from going to university is not just tuition fees, but living costs. Many young people living in relative poverty can not afford to move away from home as maintenance loans do not cover their accommodation, food shopping and course textbooks. Living costs vary greatly across universities depending on where they are based, and this may therefore prevent a student from going to the university they like the most due to the cost which they can't afford.

Since starting my studies at University of Warwick, many of the people I have met come from working class backgrounds and their parents didn't go to university (mine didn't either), so it's evident that progress is being made. However, there is still a lot more to be done to ensure that everyone has the option to access and succeed in education.

Relative poverty in the UK is just one part of the challenge to global sustainable development, however it is not inevitable. It can be addressed by collective social and political action, which is why it is so important that we as young people use our voices and rights to bring about political action and change.


Hollie Ryan Student journalist

Hi, I'm Hollie, from South East London. I am currently in my first year studying Politics, International Relations and Global Sustainable Development at the University of Warwick. I am particularly interested in educating and encouraging people to act more sustainably through behavioural change, as well as collective action for government and business change.