Race equality for academic staff has become a priority for vice-chancellors, funding councils and trade unions in the past 18 months.
The publication of the McPherson report into black teenager Stephen Lawrence's death, the Bett report, which said universities should consider setting targets for equal opportunities, and a series of increasingly strident announcements by education secretary David Blunkett have sent out a message from the top that discrimination must be confronted. But what difference has this made?
Peter Humphreys, chief executive of the Universities and Colleges Employers Association, said: "There is a new awakening to the importance of these issues."
But for others, the government directives have had little impact.
Lecturers' union Natfhe has set up a network for ethnic minority staff. Many members were keen to talk about their experiences, but fearful of using their names.
One senior lecturer in a school of nursing and midwifery said: "I do not feel that there is a new determination to tackle racial discrimination in higher education. In fact, I think that in some ways the situation is getting worse as there is a backlash against the McPherson report.
"I have a degree, but in the past five years a number of white colleagues without degrees have been promoted over me. Equal opportunities are rarely an integral part of the curriculum, and when the issues are discussed students can be hostile."
Another senior lecturer in law said: "I have worked at this university for nine years, eight years of which was spent on fixed-term contracts. White colleagues with fewer years of service and fewer qualifications were appointed over me. I did consider taking the university to a tribunal, but I was fearful that even if I won it would create a terrible atmosphere."
New research from the Association of University Teachers, which will be submitted as part of the union's pay claim in January, shows they are not alone.
The AUT found that white academics are three times more likely than black academics and twice as likely as Asian academics to be earning more than £35,000; that the highest salary differentials between whites and ethnic minorities exist among professorial grades and research staff on permanent contracts; that ethnic minorities are less likely than whites to be in senior grades and more likely to be in lecturer and research grades. Academics of Asian ethnicity are most likely to be employed on a fixed-term contract.
The AUT research, using the most recent 1998-99 data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency, shows that the situation has improved little since the publication of a report from the Centre for the Study of Ethnicity and Citizenship at Bristol University in June last year. The report, Ethnicity and Employment in Universities, based on 1996-97 data from Hesa, found that minorities, after allowing for age and length of service, were less likely to be professors than their white colleagues and that Bangladeshi, Pakistani and black Caribbean minority groups were "significantly under-represented" in academic posts.
The report also found that a third of universities did not have a racial equality policy. Three-quarters said they routinely monitored job applications by ethnicity - but only 30 per cent said that any policy decisions had been made on the basis of ethnic statistics.
In response to a questionnaire, one in five minority respondents out of 850 said they had experienced discrimination in job applications or in promotion and had suffered racial harassment from staff or students.
In his annual letter to the Higher Education Funding Council for England last month, Mr Blunkett made it clear that in return for the Pounds 330 million announced for pay over the next three years, he expected significant improvements in equal opportunities. He called on the Equality Challenge Unit, being set up by the funding councils, vice-chancellors and trade unions, to "ensure that institutions deliver the improvements in monitoring and performance that they have agreed to in their equal opportunities policy statements."
He added: "I look forward to hearing of rapid progress towards greater equality of opportunity for all groups of staff."
Hefce will consult in January on how to do this.
The confusion last week over the appointment of a director for the unit was a serious setback. Universities UK was forced to withdraw an announcement saying that Phil Barton of the Commission for Racial Equality would head the unit, after he told The THES that he was declining the post. The UUK now says that the post has "fallen vacant" and that it is seeking to fill it.
The unit is part of the Equality Challenge Framework. This was first announced as the Equal Opportunities Action Group in a consultation document put out in May. The framework also intends to tackle discrimination against women and those with disabilities.
Janet Finch, vice-chancellor of Keele University, is to chair the joint equality steering group, the policy-making body for the initiative. The unit is the full-time office.
The framework is designed to promote equality by working with stakeholders to raise awareness, provide advice and disseminate good practice, offer support to institutions, monitor progress, and research the issues. It will help universities set benchmarks and standards by which performance can be measured.
Malcolm Keight, assistant general secretary of the AUT, said: "The unit should make it a priority to establish a framework for monitoring equal opportunities policies. At the moment, Hesa data gives a limited picture of the ethnicity of part-time staff and academic-related staff."
The UUK is holding a conference on the equality challenge on February 21, when the mission and methods of the new framework will be outlined.
Baroness Warwick, chief executive of the UUK, said: "Universities are working hard to tackle equal opportunities issues, several examples of successful action will be highlighted in sessions at the conference."
Baroness Blackstone, minister of state for education and employment in the Lords, will be the keynote speaker.
In May, the UCEA and the higher education trade unions agreed a national framework to promote equal opportunity for all staff. Drawing on a series of guidelines from the Commission on University Careers Opportunities, which is being incorporated into the new unit, the framework calls for a "whole institution" approach, with improving equal opportunities part of the ethos of institutions. It calls for better monitoring and evaluation of policies and the setting of targets. "Institutions in considering setting targets should relate them to the appropriate labour market rather than simply to the immediate locality of the institution."
It also warns that the use of targets is not to be confused with quotas, or "other unlawful methods of positive discrimination".
VICE-CHANCELLORS BELIEVE PROGRESS HAS BEEN ECLIPSED BY REPORTS OF FAILURE
Earlier this year, 13 vice-chancellors and principals agreed to be interviewed anonymously on their own and their institutions' commitment to racial equality.
The interviews were conducted as a follow-up to the Leadership Challenge initiative launched by the Commission for Racial Equality in 1997, which encourages people in positions of power to take a personal stand against racial inequality.
The key message to emerge was the need for dissemination of good practice along with practical assistance and guidance.
A number of the vice-chancellors felt that achieving racial equality was a long-term goal for institutions as the composition of the student and staff body evolved.
Some also felt that the achievements made by universities were not always recognised whereas failures tended to be highlighted.
On funding, one suggestion was that funding bodies link the recruitment and retention of students and staff from under-represented groups to funding so universities would have to produce equal opportunities action plans, strategies and targets.
Several vice-chancellors wanted Universities UK and the Standing Conference of Principals to set a small number of "clearly defined and simple equal opportunities objectives" to be achieved by the end of the decade, such as targets for numbers of ethnic minority heads of institutions. This was considered important to improve the sector's credibility.
The governing body should also reflect ethnic diversity.
Many saw the new Equality Challenge Unit as a useful means of keeping the issue high on universities' agendas.