Many universities in England are still in the "early stages" of tackling race equality four years after the Race Relations Amendment Act became law, it has emerged.
A large number are failing to monitor the impact of their policies on staff and students from different ethnic backgrounds, an official review has found.
Many are yet to develop race-equality plans to an "appropriate level", although four fifths are making "fair progress", the review says. A few universities are in danger of falling foul of the law.
Roger Kline, head of the universities department at lecturers' union Natfhe, said: "It is disappointing that a significant number of institutions do not appear to have got their act together at a time when increasing publicity about the different and extensive forms of racism in higher education show this is clearly a major issue."
The conclusions come in the latest progress review for the Higher Education Funding Council for England. The report says: "By including race within a broader agenda, several higher education institutions had lost their focus on these duties, and risked being in breach of the Act."
It adds: "Mainstreaming race equality, appropriate accountability arrangements and firm, visible leadership remain areas in which a large number of higher education institutions still need to improve."
The review looked at progress in a random sample of 55 institutions, as well as 15 institutions that were assessed in May 2003 as still failing to comply with the Act.
On data collection - a specific duty laid down for universities - the review found that a "significant proportion are only just beginning to establish comprehensive monitoring systems across the full range of student and staff activities".
It also says that five institutions continued to classify ethnic minorities as "non-white", pointing out that describing a group of people in terms of what they are not is best avoided.
On a positive note, it found that universities have significantly improved how they work with partners on race equality. It says that a significant number have taken steps "to embed race equality objectives in their tendering and procurement arrangements".
The review was particularly critical of senior management - overall, universities have yet to demonstrate a strong sense of commitment from senior levels.
Saheema Rawat, policy adviser in the Equality Challenge Unit, said: "This exercise shows that the sector has recognised the fundamental importance of taking proactive steps to promote race equality. Many institutions have invested time, creativity and resources to meet the requirements of race-equality legislation and can be justly proud of the steps they have taken so far.
"There is much work to be done to ensure race equality is thoroughly mainstreamed, and the ECU considers it one of its primary functions to support the sector in meeting this goal."
Review of Progress in Race Equality is available from www.hefce.ac.uk