Universities can segregate by gender in talks from external speakers, as long as men and women are sat side by side and not one in front of the other, new guidance has advised.
A document published by Universities UK aims to support institutions in managing controversial external speakers on campus, in the wake of several arguments over their appearances.
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The report, titled External speakers in higher education institutions tackles issues such as segregated seating and freedom of speech.
This year, several reports have emerged of segregated seating events at universities. A huge row erupted at University College, London (UCL) in March after atheist Professor Lawrence Krauss threatened to walk out of a debate against Islamic lecturer Hamza Andreas Tzortzis over organisers reportedly attempting to segregate the audience.
In April, it was alleged a sign was posted on the door of a debate at Leicester University pointing males and females to separate seating areas.
"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)."
The advice also tackled the issue of non-segregated seating within a segregated event. Universities UK warned not offering a mixed seating area might be discriminatory against other beliefs, such as the belief in freedom of choice or freedom of association, or, as the publication suggests, the belief in feminism.
But, it seems there is no straight answer to the issue; Universities UK says steps 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," the report continues, "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 the those of the speaker, the institution should be mindful to ensure the freedom of speech of the religious group or speaker is not curtailed unlawfully.
"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."
Nicola Dandridge, Chief Executive of Universities UK, said: “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.
“This practical guidance has been developed to ensure that as many external speaker events proceed as possible, both safely and within the law. Universities are already very experienced in managing such issues. We hope this guidance will be of assistance to them in enhancing these processes.
“The easy route would be to ban and boycott discussions on controversial subjects. But universities have a vital role to play in securing free speech and promoting debate.”