Written by Student Rights on 13 December 2013 at 10am

Daily Mail: Now furious Gove says it's a disgrace to segregate students and accuses university bosses of 'pandering to extremism'

By James Chapman, Amie Keeley and Paul Bentley

12th December 2013

Education Secretary Michael Gove accused university bosses yesterday of ‘pandering to extremism’ by endorsing the compulsory segregation of audiences for campus visits by hard-line Islamic speakers.

He said it was ‘a disgrace’ for Universities UK to support the policy of separating men from women at lectures and debates.

Mr Gove told the Daily Mail: ‘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.’

Universities UK – an umbrella body representing university vice-chancellors –  caused further controversy yesterday, when its chief executive Nicola Dandridge said Muslim women were ‘comfortable’ being separated from men during talks by Islamic clerics on UK campuses.

Commenting on BBC Radio, she said colleges must ‘respect’ the views of extremists who want segregation during lectures.

‘If people feel more comfortable about sitting separately, and that’s invariably the situation that will arise in these cases, then universities have to listen to those views,’ she added.

‘What is very uncomfortable about this argument is you are assuming that we have the right to impose views on participants. If the participants say this is  how they want it to be, it is not appropriate for us to disregard their views.’

However, Universities UK was yesterday unable to provide any evidence that most Muslim women were happy to sit separately. And the pressure group Student Rights said the opposite was true, citing a 2008 YouGov poll which showed that nine out of ten Muslim students thought segregation was unacceptable.

Female students and campaigners yesterday told the Mail they had been incensed when they arrived at events to find they had to sit separately. A report produced this week by Student Rights found that out of 180 visits by Islamic speakers to UK universities over a 12 month period, 46 lectures at 21 institutions have insisted on segregated audiences. Women were, in most cases, forced to enter the room from a separate door and to sit at the back.

Some lectures barred women totally, making them watch proceedings from another room via a television feed. 

Rupert Sutton, of Student Rights – which monitors extremism on campuses – said: ‘Universities UK has decided the religious freedom of a radical speaker is more important than a woman’s rights to sit where she wants in a room.’

Sara Khan, 33, founder of counter-extremism group Inspire, said: ‘By allowing gender segregation, Universities UK are complicit in the gender inequality being perpetuated by Islamic societies.

‘Universities UK delves into trying to tell us what constitutes Muslim religious belief implying that those opposed to segregation must be people from outside of the Islamic faith, not recognising that often it is Muslims themselves who oppose gender segregation.’

The explosive report showing segregation at lectures across the country comes after a row in March over ‘forced segregation’ for an event at University College, London. 

An investigation was launched after students complained single women were made to sit at the back of the room for the debate – about Islam and atheism.

The organisers claimed to have provided a mixed seating area for those objecting to segregation but students who were there said this did not happen.

Dana Sondergaard, who attended the event, said: ‘After having been told the event would not be gender segregated, we arrived and were told that women were to sit in the back of the auditorium, while men and couples could file into the front.’ She said three people were thrown out for refusing to abide by the rules.

A month later the University of Leicester also held an investigation, after a photograph emerged showing separate entrances to a lecture for men and women.

Yesterday, Universities UK wrote to the Equality and Human Rights Commission for a definitive legal view. Critics said Universities UK was turning a blind eye to segregation to protect donations from Middle Eastern countries and to attract high fee-paying foreign students from the Persian Gulf.

Abdurraheem Green of pressure group the Islamic Education and Research Academy said: ‘The idea of being forced to sit with people of the opposite sex might well lead many to avoid choosing this country to further their education.’

A Government spokesman said: ‘We see no valid reason why men and women should be segregated simply to listen to a guest speaker.’