UK Universities Fine with Segregation

It's not segregation if we're all equal
It’s not segregation if we’re all equal
Imagine a university lecture room in which people from Pakistan have to be seated to the right of the room; people from Jamaica have to be seated in the centre of the room, and people from Scotland have to be seated in the left of the room or the lecturer would refuse to speak.

This thought experiment does not involve a social experiment – a Stanford. It involves a lecture on the speaker’s own ideological and political views.

It would not happen. Quite simply, racial segregation of this sort would not happen in the UK in 2013. No university would allow it. But what if the speaker was a religious leader and instead of wanting to segregate by racial characteristic, he wanted to segregate by gender?

This sort of segregation is officially OK in UK Universities according to an official body called “UK universities” and it’s all down to the needs of ultra religious minorities. How?

Universities UK – ‘The Voice of UK Universities’ released a paper on November 22nd (PDF Link Here) with the tame title: External speakers in higher education institutions. According to UUK:

“This guidance seeks to provide practical assistance to universities in steering a path through all the different considerations, legal and otherwise, that arise in the context of inviting external speakers on campus.

“The guidance builds on Universities UK’s 2011 publication ‘Freedom of speech on campus: rights and responsibilities in UK universities’, which recommended that universities should ‘review current protocols/policies on speaker meetings to ensure they are up to date and relevant, and are aligned with the students’ union’s protocols and policies’.”

Fair enough, guidance is good: what kind of tea or coffee is required, should speakers be given breakfast? But the guidance doesn’t cover practical things like those. The guidance covers such events as what happens when a religious or cultish speaker is invited to speak at your place of learning.

What happens if this speaker wants women segregated from men in the room where the lecture or polemic is to take place?

Firstly, “Freedom of speech within higher education institutions is closely associated with the academic freedom that they enjoy. Section 43(1) of the Education (No 2) Act 1986 imposes an express duty on institutions in England and Wales, in relation to staff, students and visiting speakers.


’Every individual and body of persons concerned in the government of any establishment to which this section applies shall take such steps as are reasonably practicable to ensure that freedom of speech within the law is secured for members, students and employees of the establishment and for visiting speakers.’

So, how does the UUK deal with a situation in which a speaker is invited to a university and demands segregation before he will speak? Being a bureaucracy it has produced a bureaucratic document aimed predominantly at obfuscating and enabling middle managers to argue and no to take action, it ties itself in knots.

The knots are made of attempting to avoid unravelling the red tape to reveal a very clear message to young people: ‘Segregation based on ideology is Wrong’.

Instead the document predicates on a hole in the existing UK law that does not make segregation based on gender illegal under the Equality Act 2010; this state that such segregation would only be discriminatory on the grounds of sex if it amounts to “less favourable treatment’ of either female or male attendees.”

This is not true for race segregation.

UKU has produced a case study in which, “A representative of an ultra-orthodox religious group has been invited to speak at an event to discuss faith in the modern world. The event is part of four different speeches taking place over the course of a month exploring different approaches to religion.

“The initial speaker request has been approved but the speaker has since made clear that he wishes for the event to be segregated according to gender.

“The event organiser has followed agreed processes and raised the issue with university management. The event has been widely advertised and interest levels are high.”

The recommendation is not, as you might hope in a 21st Century Western democracy, to recommend that the speaker finds somewhere more appropriate to speak, and then to get another educated speaker to provide a lecture on why cultish beliefs such as that men and women should be segregated are as applicable to modern life as witch trials, voodoo ritual and child sacrifice.

But this isn’t the case here. UKU outlines the following:

“It should therefore be borne in mind–taking account of the s.43 duty, as well as equality duties and Human Rights Act obligations – that in these circumstances, 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.

“Ultimately, if imposing an unsegregated seating area in addition to the segregated areas contravenes the genuinely-held (sic) 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. “

And here is the kicker for the 21st Century Western Democractic mixed gender student body:

“Those opposed to segregation are entitled to engage in lawful protest against segregation, and could be encouraged to hold a separate debate of the issues, but their views do not require an institution to stifle a religious society’s segregated debate where the segregation accords with a genuinely-held religious belief. The s.43 duty requires an institution to secure freedom of speech within the law.”

So, there you have it. I have to say that my Polytechnic, on East London, in the 1980s would simply have blocked the front door and told the Ultra Religious speaker to trot off and find the Ultra Right Wing speaker to find a new venue that wasn’t publicly funded. We were terribly bigoted in that way.

You can also chase through the document yourself and see how nothing is mentioned about a Far Right Political Nutter attends and wants his lecture room segregated by race. You won’t find that. Religion can still decide that men’s intellects and women’s intellects differ on a very critical level.

Finally, let me be fair to the knot tying masterclass that it is External speakers in higher education institutions. UUK, offers what I’m sure it believes is a clever way around the problem. One that would possibly result in the Ultra Religious speaker being given a way to back-out.

It is this:

• It will therefore,for example,be necessary to consider the seating plan for any segregation. For example, if the segregation is to be ‘front to back’, then that may well make it harder for the participants at the back to ask questions or participate in debate, and therefore is potentially discriminatory against those attendees. This issue could be overcome assuming the room can be segregated left and right, rather than front and back (and also ensuring that appropriate arrangements are made for those with disabilities).

• Consideration will also need to be given to whether imposing segregation on everyone attending the event is required (see below). If it is required, this may amount to less favourable treatment of other attendees because of a protected characteristic. On the face of the case study, 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.

That goes on and on and on in tighter and tighter knots. It could of course simply state:

“Segregation is wrong – Do not sanction It for idealogical reasons.”

Please leave a comment. Many thanks.