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 On Thursday the battle over gender segregation in university talks reached its climax – by Friday Universities UK had withdrawn the controversial case study which prompted such widespread public backlash.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.
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.