Universities can segregate students during debates as long as the women are not forced to sit behind the men, university leaders have said.
Segregation at the behest of a controversial speaker is an issue which arises “all the time” and banning men and women from sitting next to each during debates is a “big issue” facing universities, Universities UK has said.
As a result they have issued guidance which suggests that segregation is likely to be acceptable as long as men and women are seated side by side and one party is not at a disadvantage.
In a new guidance on external speakers, vice-chancellors’ group Universities UK says that universities face a complex balance of promoting freedom of speech without breaking equality and discrimination laws.
When considering a request for segregation, they warn, planners must think about whether a seating plan could be discriminatory to one gender – for example if women were forced to sit at the back of the room it could prove harder for them to participate in the debate.
The report adds: “Assuming the side-by-side segregated seating arrangement is adopted, there does not appear to be any discrimination on gender grounds merely by imposing segregated seating. Both men and women are being treated equally, as they are both being segregated in the same way.”
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.
Student Rights, which carried out the research, found that radical preachers spoke at 180 events at universities including Cardiff and University College London (UCL) between March 2012 and March 2013. Segregated seating for men and women was promoted or implied at more than a quarter of the events, at 21 separate institutions.
Among the events highlighted in the Student Rights report was a gender-segregated event at UCL on March 9.
The lecture, Islam vs Atheism, was organised by the Islamic Education and Research Academy (IERA), and pitted writer Hamza Tzortzis against Prof Laurence Krauss in a debate.
Apart from the controversies surrounding segregation, Universities UK say that academic institutions are facing a legal minefield when organising external speakers and their guidance aims to help them find the balance.
An example of the fine balance is illustrated when the report goes on to say that if side-by-side seating was enforced without offering an alternative non-segregated seating area, it could be deemed as discriminatory against men or women who hold feminist beliefs.
It adds: “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 report presents some hypothetical case studies which come up on campuses, including whether a speaker from an ultraorthodox religious group requests an audience is segregated by gender.
“These are issues that are arising all the time and these are really difficult issues,” said Universities UK chief executive Nicola Dandridge.
“What emerged from our work on this particular issue is that there is no clearly defined right or wrong here as to whether to allow or outlaw segregation. It is going to very much depend on the facts of the case.”
She added: “External speakers play an important role in university life, not least in terms of encouraging students to think for themselves, challenge other people’s views and develop their own opinions.
“Although most speakers are uncontroversial, some will express contentious, even inflammatory or offensive views. Universities have to balance their obligation to encourage free speech with their duties to ensure that the law is observed, the safety and security of staff, students and visitors secured, and good campus relations promoted. In practice, achieving this balance is not always easy.