Jane Usherwood, personnel director at Birmingham University, said the university was "chuffed" to have been rated so highly in its first year of membership of Race for Opportunity.
"We just wanted to benchmark where we were compared with other organisations in our approach to equal opportunities," she said.
The university was commended for work including a community-focused employment policy, fostering relationships with local minority groups and setting up a black and ethnic-minority staff group and a "race champions group" to monitor diversity issues.
Ms Usherwood said she was surprised that so few universities had signed up to Race for Opportunity. "It has been particularly useful to us in benchmarking our performance against non-university organisations.
"It takes you beyond anecdote and helps open doors to local communities. We have noticed an improvement in the application rate from local ethnic-minority candidates since we joined," she said.
Teesside University signed up to Race for Opportunity two years ago when it launched its equal opportunities policy.
Its equality officers were delighted when the university received a bronze award from the benchmarking organisation in its first year as a member. But the next year it was disappointed to find that it had slipped in the ratings.
Lee Graham, Teesside's equal opportunities and diversity officer, said:
"That made us realise that we could not afford to rest on our laurels.
"We took a fresh look at what we were doing and, as a result, we have now received a silver award.
"Race for Opportunity showed how it is possible to have an equality policy but still not be aware of how you are progressing."
Teesside's policy includes equality and diversity awareness sessions for all staff and students, and annual update sessions for its board of governors and corporate management committee.
An online version is being developed.