Beyond belief

December 5, 2013

Open letter to the UK’s vice-chancellors

Dear vice-chancellors, you should repudiate unequivocally the abhorrent guidance on external speakers recently issued by the publicly funded body that claims to represent you: Universities UK (The week in higher education, 28 November). This document mandates any British university to accede unconditionally to the conditions imposed by any external speaker who demands a gender-segregated audience. Indeed, in the UUK document’s Orwellian newspeak, it is the “imposition” of an “unsegregated” area contravening the “genuinely-held religious belief” of the speaker demanding segregation that British universities should oppose so that the “freedom of speech of the religious group or speaker is not curtailed unlawfully”.

Do you really want your female students to be treated as sex objects and second-class citizens, and to be marshalled into special female-only pens so that the “genuinely-held religious belief” of external speakers is not challenged? Would you have acceded to the Dutch Reformed Church’s demand for race-segregated congregations before it apologised for its role in propping up apartheid?

Universities’ role is to produce and diffuse knowledge free from interference: historically, this has been achieved by challenging, not by pandering to, religious belief. The bureaucrats at UUK seem to have forgotten that precisely because of “genuinely-held religious belief”, there was a time when Catholics, Jews and women (to mention but three) were not allowed into British universities. If you do not disown immediately this odious document, you will be betraying the culture that, over the course of centuries and thanks to the efforts of countless independent thinkers, has elevated British universities from bastions of religious privilege to beacons of intellectual freedom.

Manfredi La Manna
Reader in economics
University of St Andrews

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