Hefce is increasingly alarmed that only 13.1 per cent of professors are women and just 3.8 per cent are from ethnic minorities. Helen Hague reports
The stresses and disappointments of working in higher education are well chronicled: a survey this month by the Association of University Teachers found more than a quarter of academics were thinking "fairly seriously" of leaving the sector.
It is a fair bet that women and ethnic minorities are overrepresented in this alarming figure, as career progression is seen as being skewed by inequalities.
It has not gone unnoticed. Mounting concern from female academics and minority ethnic staff about career blocks has prompted the Higher Education Funding Council for England to launch a wide-ranging £250,000 equal-opportunities research programme. It will focus on race, gender and disability.
The statistics paint a stark picture. Women hold only 13.1 per cent of professorships and 24 per cent of senior lectureships. Women earn at least 15 per cent less than male colleagues and risk getting off the career ladder when they have children. Add the perception that woman receive less encouragement to apply for grants - the 50 per cent on short-term contracts are ineligible to apply - and further barriers to advancement are revealed.
In science, engineering and technology, female academics remain glaringly underrepresented - less than 9 per cent of professorships are held by women. This week, the Department of Trade and Industry announced more funding for the Athena project, which is trying to stanch the haemorrhage of talented female scientists.
Launching a new best-practice guide, Dame Julia Higgins said: "It leaves universities no excuse not to tackle the causes of women leaving science, engineering and technology in mid-career."
For ethnic minority staff, the Race Relations Amendment Act has not brought about a speedy transformation. But race discrimination in selecting and promoting staff is unlawful.
Universities and unions have pledged to work together to deliver change.
Every institution is being urged to back equality policies with properly monitored "action plans" and clear targets.
Partnership for Equality , the brochure launched by universities and unions last month, is an inclusive document with guidelines aimed at promoting equality in universities. It prepares the ground for legislation due in the next three years outlawing discrimination on the grounds of sexual preference, religion and age.
The Macpherson inquiry into the murder of Stephen Lawrence turned the spotlight on institutional racism. Then the 2000 Race Relations Amendment Act heralded a step-change in ensuring that black and Asian staff were treated fairly when it came to promotion. Talented black academics languishing at the bottom of pay scales or waiting to see if their short-term contracts get renewed might need some convincing. Anecdotal evidence abounds that many UK academics from ethnic minorities are choosing not to stick around to find out - and not just because of poor pay.
From low-grade racism - being excluded from common-room banter - to more overt forms that end up at employment tribunal, the sector has a far from blameless track record on race. In the late 1990s, Asif Qureshi, an expert in international economic law, won a record race discrimination payout of £44,880 - including £25,000 for injury to personal feelings - from the University of Manchester. The case sent shock waves through the sector. Professor Qureshi finally got the promotion he deserved - but it took more than seven years to get justice.
Trevor Phillips, new head of the Commission for Racial Equality, has planned a legal strategy that could have a salutary impact on universities that do not root out discrimination. He said: "I am very keen on using exemplar cases that will demonstrate the extent and reach of the new public duty universities must fulfil under the RRAA. I can now not only deal with individual cases of discrimination, I can take action against an institution that is not promoting equality of opportunity. There are a number of things I can do to make their lives very awkward."
Grievances can run deep. Jaques Rangasarmy, who lectures in art and design at Salford University, knows of a number of black academics who believe their progress was hampered because they spoke out when they felt they were not getting deserved promotion. Many more keep quiet. "There is a feeling that if you raise your head above the parapet, you are marked out as trouble."
He said the culture that discriminates against black academics could be deeply embedded. "Promotion depends on being given career-enhancing opportunities and tasks - and many people feel those chances are not equally distributed. I call it the horses and donkeys syndrome. Some people are treated like thoroughbreds to run the race and others more like beasts of burden."
Dr Rangasarmy belongs to BlackAUT, the union's network for black staff.
Members are alarmed at the lack of young black academics coming through.
"And this at a time when black staff could help increase student numbers in the drive to widen participation," he said.
There has been some progress: 3.8 per cent of professors and 5.5 per cent of senior lecturers who declare their ethnicity now come from minority ethnic groups. But the figures, collated by the Higher Education Statistics Agency, come with caveats. More than 11 per cent of academics choose not to state their race. Dr Rangasarmy used to be among them. "Some don't because of a sense of self-preservation - feeling you've got to be as white as possible to get on. But for me it was more a sense of outrage - people should just be treated the same." He now recognises that ethnic monitoring can have positive uses in tracking how an institution is shaping.
The figures also include academics from abroad who are hired for their research acumen so they are not an accurate reflection of how black British academics are faring. Gargi Bhattacharyya from the AUT said the statistics hid the extent to which people from settled minority communities in Britain were shunning academia. Second and third-generation black Britons are thin on the ground - often clustered at the bottom of pay scales.
Dr Bhattacharyya said the partnership document was timely but she feared it might not make the impact it should because debate was now dominated by how the system should be funded.
Dr Bhattacharyya also feared the political will to deliver change on race equality had been sapped. "Post September 11, multiculturalism is something they no longer want to be seen championing. It seems to have slipped down the agenda."
She said the sector "has not yet come near" addressing the tabloid-stoked Islamophobia some academics were encountering.
Hefce is to bankroll eight projects in its equal opportunities research programme after many women and minority ethnic staff called for "research and action to address perceived barriers to career progression". The projects - focusing on gender, race and disability - are being put out to tender. The first stage will map and analyse existing data from Hesa and the labour force censuses. The second will involve gathering qualitative data and case studies and surveying existing practice. The final tranche in the 18-month research programme will compare the UK higher education sector with other UK sectors and higher education institutions around the world.
Heidi Mirza, professor of racial equality studies at Middlesex University, welcomed the research, but added: "The core of the problem is that white male power still remains totally unmoved. There must be a will to act within every level of the university."
Kate Heasman, lecturers' union Natfhe's equality official, was also keen to keep up the pressure for change. "A window of opportunity was created with the Lawrence report, and we've made some progress. But windows have the habit of closing once attention is turned elsewhere. Our task is now to keep the heat on universities and colleges to turn policies into action.
They need to set firm targets and dismantle any barriers to progression."
Joyce Hill, director of the Equality Challenge Unit, joint publishers of Partnership for Equality, was far from complacent. "Equal opportunities measures create a culture of openness and accountability that everyone gains from. Achieving it will depend on the cooperation between management and staff representation as outlined in the document."
Watch this space.
'In the past ten years the goalposts have shifted'
Harriet Gross has always seen herself as a team player in Loughborough University's department of human sciences but last year she considered leaving the sector.
Dr Gross worked as a lecturer in psychology for 15 years, during which time she also raised a family. She specialised in women's health and pregnancy - and her talents are recognised outside the institution. She edits the Journal of Reproductive and Infant Psychology and is the pregnancy expert for Pregnancy and Birth magazine.
She never shirked, and even enjoyed the "largely invisible" administrative duties. But it did not prove a fast-track to promotion.
Dr Gross, now in her mid-40s, said: "In the past ten years the goalposts have shifted. And when it comes to promotion, you seem to be rewarded for total commitment to research or teaching."
Dr Gross is on a year's study leave, refocusing her research on developmental cogitative work.
"Institutions realise they must conform with the law on equality. But they are not exactly out there beating the drum," she said.