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Universities UK has withdrawn a case study in guidance suggesting that gender segregation may be permitted on campus under some circumstances, following criticism from the Prime Minister and the Education Secretary.
The case study was contained in a UUK paper, published last month, providing guidance for universities on handling visits from controversial external speakers. It gave an example of how, under certain circumstances, it might be acceptable to separate men and women attending such an event.
On Friday, a Downing Street spokesman said David Cameron was opposed to universities separating men and women at the request of guest speakers. The Prime Minister wanted a ban on gender segregation on campus, except in places of worship such as mosques, he said.
Mr Cameron's comments followed strong criticism of the guidance from Education Secretary Michael Gove, who accused UUK of "pandering to extremism".
In response, UUK's Chief Executive Nicola Dandridge said the case study would be withdrawn from the guidance, adding that "Universities UK agrees entirely with the Prime Minister that universities should not enforce gender segregation on audiences at the request of guest speakers."
But she added that where gender segregation is voluntary "the law is unclear", and UUK is working with its lawyers and the Equality and Human Rights Commission to clarify the position.
The EHRC has already stated that while the law allows for segregation by gender in premises being used for religious purposes, it is not permissible at an academic meeting or lecture open to the public.
Earlier in the week UUK said it had sought an opinion from senior lawyers on its position, who had confirmed that “the guidance is correct and provides an appropriate foundation for lawful decision-making”.
However, it added that given the level of public concern, it had written to the EHRC to request it consider having the issue clarified by the High Court.
In the statement UUK said its guidance was "not prescriptive” but was intended “to provide practical assistance to universities in making decisions about who they choose to invite to speak on campus, steering them through all the different considerations”. It added: “Universities are independent institutions and will make decisions themselves on a case by case basis.”
The controversial hypothetical case study included in the paper gave the example of an external speaker invited to talk about his orthodox religious faith, and who requests segregated seating areas for men and women. It concluded that if neither women nor men are disadvantaged and a non-segregated seating area is provided, it might be appropriate to agree to the request.
The National Union of Students has re-issued its advice on gender segregation, stating that: "When events are open to the general public or student population mandatory segregation is entirely unacceptable, however where the event is closed and all those present have agreed to segregate, they should have the freedom to make that choice. For events which are open to the general public or student population where some participants would like to segregate we recommend a seating arrangement that can be achieved to meet the needs of all. For instance, this might include having a space somewhere in the audience for those that do not wish to partake in any specialised spaces.
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