Guidance on the gender segregation of audiences in lectures and debates has been withdrawn, after Prime Minister David Cameron said it should not be allowed to happen.
Universities UK said a controversial case study setting out the guidance was being withdrawn while it reviews its stance, but insisted that the legal position remains “unclear” on whether the voluntary separation of men and women could be allowed at events such as lectures on Islam by visiting speakers.
However, the Equality and Human Rights Commission said that, while the law allows segregation by gender in premises being used for religious purposes, it was “not permissible” in an academic meeting or in a lecture open to the public.
UUK, which represents higher education institutions across the country, has requested help from the EHRC in establishing clarity about the legal position, after the guidance it published last month sparked protests from students and outrage from some politicians.
Education Secretary Michael Gove said: “We should not pander to extremism. Speakers who insist on segregating audiences should not be indulged by educators.
“This guidance is wrong and harmful. Universities UK should withdraw it immediately.”
And Mr Cameron’s official spokesman told a daily Westminster media briefing the prime minister felt “very strongly” about the issue and believed it raised “an important issue of principle”.
“He does not believe that guest speakers should be allowed to address segregated audiences, so he believes that Universities UK should urgently review its guidance,” said the spokesman.
He stressed that the PM’s comments did not relate to religious services in places of worship or on university premises: “There is a distinction here between how individuals choose to practise their faith and requests that speakers may make when they come to give a talk at a university.”
But he said that the PM did not believe segregation by gender should be allowed in lectures and debates, even if it is voluntary.
Asked if Mr Cameron was ready to legislate to stop segregated audiences on campus, the spokesman said: “We want to support universities in taking a tough approach, and if more may need to be done then of course the government would look at that.”
Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of Universities UK, said: “Universities UK agrees entirely with the prime minister that universities should not enforce gender segregation on 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.
“Meanwhile the case study which triggered this debate has been withdrawn pending this review.”
Earlier this year, a student equality group claimed that preaching by extremists and discrimination through segregation at student events has become a “widespread” trend at many UK universities.
Watch below: Cathy Newman asks Omar Ali, President of the Federation of Student Islamic Societies and the journalist Yasmin Alibhai Brown whether students should be segregated in modern-day Britain.