University segregation advice may need court ruling
Controversial guidance on voluntary segregation of men and women at events at universities may need to be tested in court, says a university body.
Earlier Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of Universities UK (UUK), suggested segregation was not completely "alien to our culture".
One shadow minister described himself as "horrified" by UUK's position.
Universities UK says it has today requested legal clarification from the Equality and Human Rights Commission.
In a letter, Universities UK which represents 132 institutions, has asked the Commission to consider having the issue clarified by the High Court, "or provide a clear and public statement about the law and the relevant policy considerations".
The row over the UUK guidance has sparked protests from students and some MPs.'Horrified'
Shadow business secretary Chukka Umunna told BBC Radio 4's Today programme he was "horrified".
While former home secretary Jack Straw said it was "wrong" for universities "to indulge in such extraordinary behaviour".
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.
The guidance states that university officials should consider both freedom of speech obligations, as well as discrimination and equality laws when considering the request.
Universities UK says: "If neither women nor men were disadvantaged and a non-segregated seating area were also provided, it might in the specific circumstances of the case be appropriate for the university to agree to the request."
It adds that the guidance is not prescriptive but is 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, legal and otherwise, that apply."
Ms Dandridge told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "We are not talking about universities enforcing segregation.
"One of the questions that runs through our case study which illustrates this question is, 'Is this segregation voluntary, have the people who are likely to come to this event agreed to the segregation?'
"That is something that would be fundamentally important to the university in making a decision.
"In practice if the people coming to this event said, 'We do not want to segregate and separate out men and women,' it is inconceivable that the university would impose it on them.
Ms Dandridge emphasised that the case study was about a very specific scenario: "We are not talking about teaching, lectures, the core business of universities."
She rejected comparisons to racial segregation.
"It is possible for women to choose to be educated in an all-women environment.Guidance 'lawful'
"It is not something which is so alien to our culture that it has to be regarded like race segregation."
She added that pressure on women to sit in certain places would result in a university preventing an event going ahead.
"This is about ensuring that everyone has the right to sit where they want, including those who wish to sit in separate areas.
"That element of voluntary advice is really critical, it's not a question of imposing views on students here.
Mr Umunna told Today a future Labour government would outlaw segregation on campus.
"I was horrified by what I heard...
"Let me be absolutely clear. A future Labour government would not allow or tolerate segregation in our universities.
"It offends basic norms in our society.
"Of course people should be free to practise their religion privately in places of worship and at religious events but universities are publicly funded places of research, learning and teaching and as such there is no place, in my view, for state-sponsored segregation."
Universities UK has today also published legal advice on its guidance from Fenella Morris QC which concludes that it "is lawful and provides an appropriate foundation for lawful decision-making by universities".