A quota system monitored by the funding councils is being considered to boost the number of women and ethnic minority staff in higher education.
Under pressure from government, the Higher Education Funding Council for England, the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, and other representative groups will establish an equal opportunities executive following board meetings next month.
Institutions may be asked to set their own targets in consultation with the executive and would then be held to account for any failure to meet their goals.
In his annual letter to Hefce, dated November 1999, education secretary David Blunkett asked the council "to ensure that all institutions had equal opportunities policy statements and that they are accountable for their full and proper implementation".
Mr Blunkett wrote: "I am deeply concerned about the present position on equal opportunities for higher education staff.
"I want institutions to remove barriers to recruitment and progression and to make progress towards greater equality of opportunity for all groups of staff."
Howard Newby, president of the CVCP, said: "The issues are not so much to do with individual acts of sexism and racism - they are much more deeply and subtly rooted in institutional practices. Our staff record is not good. We have to give a much higher profile to equal opportunities and move towards its fast implementation."
The unions and some vice-chancellors favour asking institutions to set targets for the recruitment and retention of women, ethnic minorities and disabled people.
The Cabinet Office has already set targets for non-departmental public bodies, including the funding council board. At present, there are just four women among the 20 people who attend Hefce board meetings and no representatives from ethnic minorities.
Institutions should be prevented from setting targets that are too low, said Paul Mackney, general secretary of lecturers' union Natfhe. The union would support the introduction of performance indicators showing the proportion of staff who come from minority groups, he added.
Female academics earn, on average, Pounds 4,300 a year less than their male colleagues, according to Natfhe. Despite forming almost half the higher education workforce, they are clustered in lower-status jobs.
A separate study revealed that one-third of institutions did not have a racial equality policy. Even when institutions did have a policy, it was limited. Just six out of ten policies covered recruitment, just over half covered career progression and just four out of ten covered contract status.
The position of ethnic minority women was the most disadvantaged.
The work by John Carter, Steve Fenton and Tariq Modood of the University of Bristol was published in October last year by the Policy Studies Institute.
Steve Egan, director of finance at Hefce, said universities and colleges still fell short of what was required on identifying good practice in equal opportunities.
Proposals for the best ways to develop and implement equal opportunities policies will be published for consultation by Hefce and the CVCP in May. Tony Bruce, director of policy at the CVCP, said: "We expect a positive response from institutions, particularly in view of the heightened political interest in this area."
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