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 On Thursday the battle over gender segregation in university talks reached its climax – by Friday Universities UK had withdrawn the controversial case study which prompted such widespread public backlash.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?
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Student

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + competitive: SThree: Are you a recent graduate loo...

Guru Careers: Graduate Editor / Editorial Assistant

£16 - 20k: Guru Careers: A Graduate Editor / Editorial Assistant is needed to ...

Ashdown Group: Graduate UI Developer - HTML, CSS, Javascript

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Graduate UI Application Developer - ...

Ashdown Group: Marketing or Business Graduate Opportunity - Norwich - £22,000

£18000 - £22000 per annum + training: Ashdown Group: Business and Marketing Gr...

Independent Dating
and  

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

Day In a Page

Raif Badawi: Wife pleads for fresh EU help as Saudi blogger's health worsens

Please save my husband

As the health of blogger Raif Badawi worsens in prison, his wife urges EU governments to put pressure on the Saudi Arabian royal family to allow her husband to join his family in Canada
Birthplace of Arab Spring in turmoil as angry Tunisians stage massive sit-in over lack of development

They shall not be moved: jobless protesters bring Tunisia to a halt

A former North African boom town is wasting away while its unemployed citizens stick steadfastly to their sit-in
David Hasselhoff's new show 'Hoff the Record': What's it like working with a superstar?

Hanging with the Hoff

Working with David Hasselhoff on his new TV series was an education for Ella Smith
Can Dubai's Design District 'hipster village' attract the right type of goatee-wearing individualist?

Hipsters of Arabia

Can Dubai’s ‘creative village’ attract the right type of goatee-wearing individualist?
The cult of Roger Federer: What is it that inspires such obsessive devotion?

The cult of Roger Federer

What is it that inspires such obsessive devotion?
Kuala Lumpur's street food: Not a 'scene', more a way of life

Malaysian munchies

With new flights, the amazing street food of Kuala Lumpur just got more accessible
10 best festival beauty

Mud guards: 10 best festival beauty

Whether you're off to the Isle of Wight, Glastonbury or a local music event, we've found the products to help you
Unai Emery’s passion for winning and eye for a bargain keep Seville centre stage in Europe

A Different League

Unai Emery’s passion for winning and eye for a bargain keep Seville centre stage in Europe, says Pete Jenson
Amir Khan and James DeGale’s remarkable Olympic performances were just the start of an extraordinary journey - Steve Bunce

Steve Bunce on Boxing

Amir Khan and James DeGale’s remarkable Olympic performances were just the start of an extraordinary journey
Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf