Written by Student Rights on 16 December 2013 at 11am

Daily Mail:Universities cave in over sex segregation after Cameron condemns demands by radical preachers

By Gerri Peev

14th December 2013

David Cameron has hit out at universities who segregate men and women during lectures with radical preachers, warning the practise must not be allowed.

The Prime Minister broke his silence on the controversial policy of seating men and women separately during lectures from Muslim and other ultra-orthodox scholars.

Universities last night caved in after Mr Cameron intervened to warn them it was unacceptable. The Prime Minister told Sky News: 'I’m absolutely clear that there should not be segregated audiences for visiting speakers to universities in Britain. 

‘That is not the right approach. The guidance should not say that, universities should not allow this. I’m very clear about this.’

Mr Cameron’s intervention came after Education Secretary Michael Gove told the Mail that he believed universities were guilty of ‘pandering to extremism’.

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said the Prime Minister also felt ‘very strongly’ about segregation: ‘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.’ 

He added that with segregation came possible ‘risks of discrimination’. ‘There is an important principle here around free speech. There is a long tradition of that in our educational establishments and he (the Prime Minister) thinks that is a very important tradition.’ 

Universities UK, which represents higher education institutions, buckled under the pressure and last night scrapped its original guidance.

It also asked for more clarity from the Equalities and Human Rights Commission [ECHR] over segregation by gender on campus.

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.’ 

But EHRC chief executive Mark Hammond said it is not ‘permissible’ under the law for universities to segregate by gender in academic meetings that were open to the public.

‘Clearly, a university like any other institution is entitled to provide services and facilities separately by gender where appropriate and lawful - for example, accommodation, sports and targeted welfare provision,’ said Mr Hammond.

‘It is also entirely permissible for a university or other organisation to have private members’ clubs for a single sex.

‘Universities can also provide facilities for religious meetings and associations based on faith, as in the rest of society. Equality law permits gender segregation in premises that are permanently or temporarily being used for the purposes of an organised religion where its doctrines require it.

‘However, in an academic meeting or in a lecture open to the public it is not, in the Commission’s view, permissible to segregate by gender.’

Critics said the confusing guidelines had led to ‘sexual apartheid’ and 9000 people have signed a petition condemning separation of the sexes in lecture halls.

Shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna said he was ‘horrified’ and warned a future Labour government would not allow or tolerate segregation in universities.

Mr Gove told the Daily Mail this week that the guidance should be withdrawn immediately:

‘We should not pander to extremism. Speakers who insist on segregating audiences should not be indulged by educators. This guidance is wrong and harmful. It should be withdrawn immediately.’ 

The argument hinges on a hypothetical case study included in the guidance which was published last month.

The case study involves an external speaker invited to talk about his orthodox religious faith who subsequently requests segregated seating areas for men and women.

University College London hit the headlines in March after a Muslim organisation hosted a debate in which the audience was split into male only, female only and mixed seating.

And a lecture at Leicester University in April hosted by the university’s Islamic Society also displayed signage indicating where ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters’ should sit separately.

Research by Student Rights, a group which aims to prevent extremism at universities, said that over the year to March 2013, 46 events at 21 separate institutions were found to have either explicitly promoted segregation by gender or implied that this would be the case.

Six of these were cancelled before they took place, however, the group said.