Equal opportunities and fairness for all staff will be boosted by a £250,000 research programme by the funding councils, write Alison Goddard and Olga Wojtas.
The programme aims to "lead to interventions in higher education that improve equality of opportunity and fairness for all higher education staff at all levels by more systematically identifying and analysing the effects of institutional and personal behaviours".
Bob Burgess, vice-chancellor of the University of Leicester, is leading the research for the English funding council.
Eight separate projects are due to report by December 2004.
Joan Stringer, principal of Napier University, chair of the strategic expert group on women and former Equal Opportunities Commissioner for Scotland, said it was important for the research to identify differences in national trends in different parts of the UK and the reasons behind these.
She warned that institutions should not wait for the outcomes before tackling equality issues. "There are things institutions can do now and that the funding councils can suggest that institutions do now, such as pay audits."
'There isn't any policy attention here'
The Swedes have found that women academics need to produce two and half times more papers than men to qualify for the same research awards, according to gender expert Louise Morley.
But there are no similar findings from the UK, which is lagging far behind the rest of Europe and even a number of Commonwealth countries in tackling equal opportunities for men and women.
"Gender equity is a performance indicator in Sweden. Questions are asked about the number of women in senior positions. But there isn't the policy attention here," said Dr Morley, director of the Centre for Higher Education Studies at London University's Institute of Education.
"If you look at the white paper, gender's just not an issue. Students are treated as one block, and the discussion about (graduate earnings) suggests all students earn the same amount despite ethnicity, gender and social class."
While more than half of undergraduates are women, research showed that female graduates or those from ethnic minorities earned less than white male graduates with the same qualifications, Dr Morley said.
Job opportunities have opened up for women in middle management in higher education, but they are still not taking up senior posts in great numbers.
"I think the funding councils' £250,000 research initiative on equality is excellent," Dr Morley said.
"We need a lot more mapping and baseline data."