Graduate employers are targeting recruitment at universities with a high proportion of ethnic minority students. And this positive discrimination is based on "hard commercial return value", not altruism, says the campaign group Race for Opportunity.
Under the umbrella of the RfO, energy company Centrica, formerly part of British Gas, has begun vetting universities with the Commission for Racial Equality and targeting minority groups.
In its first targeting exercise, ethnic minorities made up 30 per cent of the 4 applications, a far higher proportion than in the overall graduate population.
Commercial director Peter Lehmann said: "The business benefits are simple. We want to get staff of the highest quality possible. If we, by accident, exclude ethnic minorities who are as good as, or better than, other candidates, then we miss out."
The organisation chose institutions first on the basis of their reputations. Most do not have exceptionally high proportions, but the CRE ensured the numbers were in keeping with local populations.
Centrica targeted Nottingham University (5.2 per cent ethnic minority students), Leeds (7.4 per cent), Liverpool (7.2 per cent) and Aston (19.7 per cent). Institutions with the highest proportions, such as London Guildhall University with 45.5 per cent, were not targeted. Deian Hopkin, vice-provost at LGU, said that he was wary of positive discrimination, but that many ethnic minority students faced adversities that brought them value-added employability skills.
Research by occupational psychologists Pearn Kandola has shown how ethnic minorities will gradually make up a larger share of the labour force. More than half of all ethnic minorities aged 16 to 24 are in full-time education, compared with 33 per cent of white people. The proportion of ethnic minorities gaining places at university is also increasing.
But companies, through discrimination or outdated recruitment practices, are missing out on a valuable pool of talent, said RfO. Ethnic minority graduates will avoid companies they perceive to be prejudiced or lax about equal opportunities.
The commercial emphasis of the RfO campaign has earned it the backing of Trade and Industry secretary Peter Mandelson, who met its leaders last month. "He supported the view that a corporate focus on ethnic minorities was not linked to social altruism but to hard commercial return value," said the RfO.
The RfO was set up in 1995 by the Prince of Wales's charity, Business in the Community. Its mission is to "focus on the business case for engaging ethnic minorities".
A spokeswoman for RfO, whose members include BT, British Airways and the BBC, said that the ethos of the campaign was based on the "business case".