According to Fenella Morris QC, who was asked to review UUK advice on what to do if a visiting lecturer asks men and women to sit separately, the organisation’s advice was “lawful” and “provides an appropriate foundation for lawful decision-making”.
However, UUK has faced fresh criticism over its guidance, which said a speaker could legitimately ask for men and women to sit separately as long as neither sex was “disadvantaged” by sitting at the back of the room and a non-segregated area was also available.
To deny such a request for “voluntary segregation” may violate an individual’s right to freedom of speech connected to their religious beliefs, the guidance says.
Consideration of gender segregation, which has been requested by some Islamic speakers at UK universities, came in a case study considering the various legal issues on the matter.
However, shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna has said he is “horrified” at UUK’s position, which critics say is putting the beliefs of Islamic extremists over gender equality.
His intervention follows an interview with UUK chief executive Nicola Dandridge on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, in which she said that gender segregation is not completely “alien to our culture”.
“We are not talking about universities enforcing segregation,” Ms Dandridge told the programme. “One of the questions that runs through our case study which illustrates this questions is: ‘Is this segregation voluntary, have the people who are likely to come to this event agreed to the segregation?’”
Guidance from Ms Morris appears to support UUK’s advice that it must consider its duty to provide free speech to religious speakers who are averse to audiences where men and women sit together.
It states that in “many cases” it is likely that the rights of a speaker to freedom of speech and religious expression “will be greater than the [the right to freedom of association for those not wanting to be segregated]…if not allowing segregation would prevent the speaker appearing”, Ms Morris says.
Ms Morris says that unless women find themselves suffering a disadvantage from segregation, such as sitting at the back of a room and unable to hear, “segregation on the grounds of sex is not automatically discriminatory”.
However, deliberate segregation on terms of race would automatically amount to unfair treatment, she adds.
Given the public concern over the UUK guidance, it has written to the Equality and Human Rights Commission asking it to clarify the legal position, either by a High Court ruling or a public statement on the matter.