A controversial case study that aimed to help guide universities on gender segregation at events featuring Islamic speakers has been withdrawn after David Cameron waded into the row over Universities UK’s advice.
The prime minister said universities should not be able to separate men and women at the request of guest speakers, a Downing Street spokesman said on 13 December.
His comments came amid growing criticism of legal advice issued by UUK last month, which says a speaker’s right to religious expression may be violated if a request to segregate an audience is not allowed for in some way.
A case study published as part of the advice says side-by-side segregation might be a possibility because this step would not disadvantage either sex, though it must be voluntary.
However, after Mr Cameron’s intervention, Nicola Dandridge, UUK’s chief executive, said the case study would be withdrawn pending a review of the document.
“Universities UK agrees entirely with the prime minister that universities should not enforce gender segregation on audiences at the request of guest speakers,” she said.
“However, where the gender segregation is voluntary, the law is unclear. We are working with our lawyers and the [Equality and Human Rights Commission] to clarify the position.
“Meanwhile the case study which triggered this debate has been withdrawn pending this review.”
Education secretary Michael Gove was among others who had also accused UUK bosses of “pandering to extremism” by issuing the advice.
“Speakers who insist on segregating audiences should not indulged by educators,” said Mr Gove.
Shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna said he was “horrified” by the advice, which was also condemned by former Labour home secretary Jack Straw.
Ms Dandridge has also faced criticism after she said that gender segregation is not completely “alien to our culture” in an interview on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
“We are not talking about universities enforcing segregation,” Ms Dandridge told the programme on 12 December.
“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?’”
According to a review of its advice by Fenella Morris QC, the organisation’s advice was “lawful” and “provides an appropriate foundation for lawful decision-making”.
However, the advice was further thrown into doubt by a statement published on 13 December by Mark Hammond, chief executive of the EHRC.
“Equality law permits gender segregation in premises that are permanently or temporarily being used for the purposes of an organised religion where its doctrines require it,” he said.
“However, in an academic meeting or in a lecture open to the public it is not, in the Commission’s view, permissible to segregate by gender.”
Mr Hammond said UUK should clarify its guidance, which “concludes that the imposition of segregated seating in certain circumstances could be permissible.”
“The guidance also gives the impression that the right to manifest or express a religious belief should be balanced against the right not to be discriminated against,” he said.
“We think the guidance could be clearer on what the legal framework lays down on these issues to avoid any risk of misrepresenting the legal position.”