Addressing Inequalities at University – A Behaviour Change Approach

by | 7 Jun 2023 | Research Spotlight | 0 comments

Did you know that there are 20% fewer black students who achieve a 1st or 2i degree compared to white students? This ‘gap’ becomes even larger when we look at those working in academia. Only 1% of UK professors are Black and there are only 41 Black women professors in the UK! We know that minoritised students and lecturers are just as smart and motivated as others, so why are they not represented, especially at the top?

Addressing the Cause Behind Inequities

Like any organisation, Universities have a racism problem. Racism is present within the University systems as well as in our individual behaviour. Systemic downplaying of racist complaints, discrimination, and microaggressions are just a few examples of racism in the academic environment, which show how much change is needed. And as members of the academic community, we need to be the ones who enact this change.

The Role of Behaviour Change in the HEART

While my background is in health psychology, I am interested in applying my expertise in behaviour change more broadly. I’ve collaborated with clinical psychologists, Dr Adam Danquah and Dr Shireen Gaur to deliver the Higher Education Anti-Racism Training (HEART). HEART is a university-wide initiative with training stretching across 10 months. We use a group analytical approach that gives people the chance to have meaningful conversations about race and racism in Higher Education. My behaviour change component gives people the space and the skills to address those issues.

Why We Don’t Always Take Action Despite Our Good Intentions

We all want to do better, but sometimes it’s difficult to translate our intentions into actions. The behaviour change component of our training can help people understand why that is the case, but also learn strategies to effectively change our behaviour.

There are simple steps we can take to bridge this gap between what we intend to do and our actions.

1. Define what behaviours are necessary to achieve your aim

For example, if you want to increase the number of people who contribute at meetings then specify how you will do this. You can ask non speakers if they have anything to add or let people know they can email you prior to and after a meeting with comments.

2. Use Behaviour Change Techniques

This can involve simple techniques we’re all familiar with like goal setting and action planning. It’s important to set SMART goals (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time dependent) and to specify precisely when, where and how we’ll do something. It is also useful to think about problem solving. What barriers could you encounter? How could you overcome them?

Doing this work during group sessions, allows people to think about what they want to do and how they’ll do it with lots of helpful input from other people.

‘Getting Engaged’ to Address the Achievement Gap

I’ve also been working on another programme called Get it Together with a brilliant team of colleagues including Dr Adam Danquah and Dr Asieh Shomali. Get It Together workshops aim to address the achievement gap, which affects not only students from racialised backgrounds but also students with other protected characteristics.

Our first workshop to help people ‘Get Engaged’ involved a performance from a wonderful group of students sharing their and their peers’ experiences of navigating the academic environment, the barriers they encounter and how we can better support them. The student voice set the scene for the introduction of my behaviour change section, as no one could have watched that performance without feeling the need to address these problems.

We’re All Responsible – But that’s a Good Thing

I’m excited about this work as it really feels that I’m using my expertise for something that is valuable. I love that the initiatives highlight that the responsibility for solving these issues belongs to all of us. We don’t have to wait for structural changes from the top, or for a few powerful people to make changes. We have an opportunity to create a more equitable environment today through our work and interactions with others. And for me as a behaviour change researcher, it’s about giving people the space, the support, and the skills they need to enact those changes in their lives.

About the Author

Dr Tracy Epton is a chartered psychologist and a lecturer in psychology and mental health, with research interests in health psychology and health behaviour change. To find out more about her work, you can email her at


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *