Lecturers back students' right to wear the burkha

Banning religious clothing would discourage diversity in higher education, union leaders warn

Students should have the right to wear religious attire, such as burkhas, in colleges and universities, lecturers will be told tomorrow.

Leaders of the University and College Union (UCU) will pledge their support for the right of people of all faiths "to wear the religious head-dress and other religious attire appropriate to their faiths".

The union argues that the move is essential to encourage participation in further and higher education among ethnic minority groups – particularly women.

Delegates will also debate an amendment condemning what it calls "the alarming precedent" of a UK college prohibiting students from wearing the veil in college. Burnley College in Lancashire took the decision last year on security grounds. In 2009, it had also refused a student permission to enrol at the college while she was wearing a veil.

The debate comes on the heels of the French government's decision to ban the wearing of the veil in public – a move criticised by the union as evidence of increasing Islamophobia. Other countries, such as Austria, are said to be considering similar moves to France if the number of women wearing veils grows.

"Anybody should be free to wear what they choose to follow their beliefs," said Alan Whitaker, president of the UCU. "That has been a principle of the union. We are a secular union but that doesn't mean we're anti-religion.

"We're in favour of people's freedom to practise any religion they choose, and to be able to follow the customs of that religion – and that includes what clothing they wear."

Delegates will cite as further evidence of Islamophobia the Swiss referendum decision to forbid the construction of minarets on mosques.

A further amendment, tabled by lecturers at the London School of Economics, says that "an important principle of education is to combat superstition and prejudice".

The LSE lecturers stress that allowing people of all faiths to wear what they want would help to achieve this. The amendment adds: "People of all faiths, or of none, have the right to dress as they personally consider appropriate."

Meanwhile, the conference was yesterday expected to back calls for a 24-hour general strike by public sector workers over the threat to reduce pensions.

University lecturers look likely to join teachers and civil servants – both of whom are currently balloting their members on strike action – in a 24-hour stoppage on 30 June over the threat.

They are also being asked to back strike action over public spending cuts, which have already provoked one college to consider making 25 per cent of its staff redundant.

In her address to the conference yesterday, Sally Hunt, the union's general secretary, warned that the UK risks becoming "yesterday's country, equipped with yesterday's skills" if spending cuts – which include the abolition of grants of up to £30 a week to encourage disadvantaged youngsters to stay on in education after 16 – continue in colleges and universities.

"When you shut the door on opportunity for our young people you don't just waste lives, you waste money," she will argue. "When you weigh the cost of keeping kids on benefit versus giving them a chance in life, it is ignorance that is the expensive option, not education."

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