Put it to the test case

December 12, 2013

I can quite understand the strength of feeling expressed in Manfredi La Manna’s letter about Universities UK’s guidance on external speakers in higher education institutions (“Beyond belief”, 5 December). But the key question in what I thought was an excellent summary of the complex legal framework by Mills & Reeve et al is whether some forms of belief in freedom of choice and freedom of association could fall within the definition of “equality” in the Equality Act 2010 and thereby in effect prevent the segregation of audiences, regardless of the wishes of organisers or speakers. The authors correctly state that this cannot be decided without a court ruling.

Manfredi, or others who feel the same way, might encourage a claim to be brought to court, and I suggest that UUK should pay the costs.

It should also be stressed that the legal responsibilities under the Education (No 2) Act 1986, and indeed the other legislation discussed in the guidance, lie with institutions’ governing bodies, not the executive heads represented by UUK.

Dennis Farrington
Rye, East Sussex

 

The Feminist and Women’s Studies Association condemns the guidance on external speakers recently released by UUK. We believe it is poorly conceived and will serve only to reinforce women’s already marginalised position in UK universities.

The depressing truth is that women continue to experience prejudice and discrimination on campus. They are under-represented at the professorial and senior management levels, and female students continue to be victimised as a result of a “lad culture” that condones sexual harassment and assault.

Protections for freedom of speech do not entitle institutions to instigate policies that actively discriminate against already marginalised groups. As secular, state-funded institutions, universities have a responsibility to prevent discrimination, victimisation and harassment, yet by privileging the wishes of religious and political speakers over the wider rights of women, they fail in this fundamental duty.

Universities would rightly be condemned for promoting segregation on the grounds of race, sexuality or disability, and so the sole exception of segregation on the basis of gender cannot be tolerated. The UUK guidance encourages universities to “be mindful to ensure that the freedom of speech of the religious group or speaker is not curtailed unlawfully”, but demonstrates no concern to protect the rights of those who would be excluded from such events because they do not wish to be discriminated against. And it does not suggest how institutions should respond to students, staff or members of the public who refuse to comply with segregated seating.

The act of gender segregation sends a clear message about the status of women and this is not negated by the proposed “compromise” of left-right segregation. “Different but equal” is a premise that has long been used to justify the exclusion of women from public life and obscures real structural issues of capitalism and patriarchy. This is the same argument used recently by Stuart Agnew, MEP representing the East of England for the UK Independence Party, to explain that women’s absence from top jobs results not from institutional sexism, workplace discrimination and an absence of adequate childcare, but from a “lack of ambition”.

We call on UUK to withdraw the guidance and instead to condemn any policies of gender segregation that serve to further marginalise women in our universities.

Executive committee
Feminist and Women’s Studies Association (UK and Ireland)

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