We must never allow gender segregation at our universities for any reason

Feelings are running high over controversial guidance concerning certain religious events

Students protested over it; David Cameron condemned it; 8,000 people signed a petition opposing it. On Thursday the battle over gender segregation in university talks reached its climax – by Friday Universities UK had withdrawn the controversial case study which prompted such widespread public backlash.

Universities UK, the representative body for UK universities, first released guidance in November regarding gender segregation at talks by external speakers. Reiterating its stance last week, the organisation sanctioned the right of a speaker from an ultra-orthodox religious group to request a segregated audience.

Abandoning this guidance is a victory for equality and free speech. The case study permitted segregation - but only if the audience was happy to acquiesce, if neither sex was ‘disadvantaged and a non-segregated seating area [was] also provided’. A seemingly unnecessary proposition: if a non-segregated area is mandatory then why provide a segregated one? Surely this would still contravene the speaker’s wishes? The term ‘disadvantaged’ is ambiguous – just how is it defined and assessed?  Most disturbing, it appeared to accommodate segregation based on extremist religious beliefs which often have misogyny at their root.

One Muslim's view: Can segregation actually be inclusive?

This is a humiliating outcome for an organisation which spent weeks vehemently defending its position. Only a day before the withdrawal, Nicola Dandridge, the chief executive of the body, told BBC Radio 4’s The Today Show such gender segregation is not ‘completely alien’ in our society, citing single-sex schools as an example.

For anyone celebrating this apparent volte-face, your glee will be short lived. On Friday Dandridge said: ‘Universities UK agrees entirely with the prime minister that universities should not enforce gender segregation of audiences at the request of guest speakers. However, where the gender segregation is voluntary, the law is unclear. We are working with our lawyers and the EHRC to clarify the position.’

Clearly Universities UK has not entirely abandoned the notion of segregation.

Segregation - voluntary or involuntary - seems almost surreal in modern Britain, the antithesis of our legal and civic framework: egalitarianism. Michael Gove was right to criticise the guidance for ‘pandering to extremism’. In an increasingly secularised society it feels wrong to uphold extremist religious views at the expense of basic, social and ethical codes. More worryingly, the self-described ‘definitive voice for universities’, Universities UK gave credence to such an outdated idea instead of dismissing it instantly. Not surprising that it now finds itself frantically withdrawing case studies and reviewing legal positions.

Once deliberation and legal clarification is complete, the universities should take a collective path - irrespective of Universities UK’s final consensus. The notion that segregation and equality can co-exist is a fallacy, a dangerous barrier to free speech. Separating people based on biological differences implies that because of this, they can never be equal. Without equality free speech is simply unattainable. Universities should be bastions of free speech and oppose segregation. External talks - which celebrate free speech - would be seriously undermined if audience segregation was permitted. Universities UK made a serious error of judgement; the universities must not do likewise.

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Student

Ashdown Group: Learning and Development Programme Manager

£35000 - £38000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, int...

Recruitment Genius: Marketing Assistant - IT Channel - Graduate

£16000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is a Value-Added I...

Ashdown Group: Learning and Development Programme Manager

£35000 - £38000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, int...

Guru Careers: Junior Web Developer

£18 - 22k (DOE) + Benefits & Stock Options: Guru Careers: A Junior Developer /...

Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

The saffron censorship that governs India

Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

How did fandom get so dark?

Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

Disney's mega money-making formula

'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

Lobster has gone mainstream

Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

14 best Easter decorations

Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

Paul Scholes column

Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

The future of GM

The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

Britain's mild winters could be numbered

Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

Cowslips vs honeysuckle

It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss