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Universities UK guidance on gender segregation withdrawn

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Universities UK have retracted their guidance regarding gender segregation following criticism from students and politicians, including the Prime Minister. The leading universities body is in the process of reviewing its stance, but insisted the legal position remains “unclear”.

The guidance, published last month, advised universities who may be “managing controversial guest speakers” that “concerns to accommodate the wishes or beliefs of those opposed to segregation should not result in a religious group being prevented from having a debate in accordance with its belief system.”

The guidance goes on to say that if “imposing an unsegregated seating area in addition to the segregated areas contravenes the genuinely-held religious beliefs of the group hosting the event, or those of the speaker, the institution should be mindful to ensure that the freedom of speech of the religious group or speaker is not curtailed unlawfully.”

At a daily Westminster media briefing, a spokesman said the Prime Minister felt “very strongly” about the issue. Mr Cameron doesn’t believe guest speakers should be allowed to address segregated audiences in an academic environment, even if it is on a voluntary basis. The PM stresses the distinction between practicing one’s faith and accommodating the requests of a speaker when they visit a university.

Education Secretary Michael Gove said “the guidance is wrong and harmful,” whilst Business Secretary Vince Cable has contacted the body, calling for further amendments.

Cable noted the ambiguity within the law: “I am clear that forced segregation of any kind, including gender segregation, is never acceptable on campuses. But how the law applies where segregation is voluntary is unclear. That is why I am writing to Universities UK asking them to clarify the distinction between private worship on the one hand and public areas of learning on the other, and to amend their guidance accordingly.”

The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) said the law allows gender segregation in “premises being used for religious purposes,” but it is “not permissible” in an academic meeting or lecture open to the public.

Universities UK agree with the Prime Minister that guest speakers should not impose gender segregation on audiences. The body is currently working with their “lawyers and the EHRC to clarify the position.”

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