Nearly half of all new universities and higher education colleges have no ethnic minority members on their board of governors, according to research from lecturers' union Natfhe.
Nearly 40 per cent of institutions do not openly advertise for board members and 16 per cent of boards do not treat staff and student governors as equal partners.
Natfhe has launched a campaign to make universities more open and accountable. It wants all post-92 institutions to sign up to a Manifesto for Open Governance in Higher Education based on the Nolan committee's seven principles of public life - public service, academic freedom, representativeness, inclusivity, openness, fairness and accountability.
Liz Allen, Natfhe's national official for higher education, said: "The Nolan committee set guidelines for conduct in all of public life, and it is right that public education institutions should satisfy these criteria.
"There is a great deal of good governance practice in higher education, but overall there is a patchwork of good and poor practice."
Natfhe branches will send the manifesto to governing bodies to encourage its adoption.
The Natfhe research was carried out this spring as a follow-up to earlier research in 1999. They both focused on the composition of boards, how subcommitees work, governor training and attitudes to independent review of student complaints.
Natfhe found that governor training or induction was the only area to have changed significantly since 1999. Only one institution now offers no governor induction.
But a quarter of institutions still have no elected academic staff governor in practice - and 17 per cent are constitutionally in that position.
Eighty per cent of institutions have some kind of local or regional representation on their boards, although in many cases this is informal rather than constitutional.
About 75 per cent of universities had at least one ethnic minority governor - but only 26 per cent of colleges.
Sixteen per cent of institutions did not allow staff governors to be members of any sub-committee and only 19 per cent had joint structures between boards and academic bodies.
On the question of whether there should be independent review of student complaints, 45 per cent of institutions were unclear, had not discussed it or thought it was a management decision. The report on the research says that this is "surely a matter for a governing body to consider".