University segregation row: Ministers call for clarity
Ministers have written to university leaders asking them to clarify advice on allowing men and women to be segregated at talks by guest speakers.
Universities UK (UUK) said that, under some circumstances, such seating would be allowed if requested by speakers from orthodox religious groups.
PM David Cameron told Channel 4 News the guidance "shouldn't say that".
UUK, which has withdrawn part of the guidance, says it may need to be tested in court.
The umbrella body has written to the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) asking it to either seek clarification in the High Court or to "provide a clear and public statement about the law and the relevant policy considerations".
The controversy hinges on a hypothetical case study featuring an external speaker invited to talk about his orthodox religious faith.
In the case study, now withdrawn pending the EHRC review, the speaker requests segregated seating areas for men and women.
The UUK guidance - published last month - stated that, when considering the request, university officials should consider both freedom of speech obligations as well as discrimination and equality laws.
It concluded that "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 added that the guidance was not prescriptive and that its aim was 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".
Business Secretary Vince Cable, whose department has responsibility for universities, has now written to UUK urging it to clarify its position.
"I am clear that forced segregation of any kind, including gender segregation, is never acceptable on campuses," he said.
"But how the law applies where segregation is voluntary is unclear.
"That is why I am writing to Universities UK asking them to clarify that distinction between private worship on the one hand and public areas of learning on the other, and to amend their guidance accordingly."
On Friday evening, the prime minister said he was "absolutely clear that there shouldn't be segregated audiences for visiting speakers to universities in Britain".
"That is not the right approach - the guidance shouldn't say that," he told Channel 4.
"Universities should not allow this and I'm very clear about that."
UUK chief executive Nicola Dandridge said the organisation agreed with Mr Cameron that universities should not enforce gender segregation on audiences at the request of guest speakers.
But "where the gender segregation is voluntary, the law is unclear," she said.
"We are working with our lawyers and the EHRC to clarify the position.
"Meanwhile, the case study which triggered this debate has been withdrawn pending this review."
EHRC chief executive Mark Hammond, meanwhile, has said that, while segregation by gender in premises being used for religious purposes was legal, it was "not permissible" in an academic meeting or in a lecture open to the public.
Baroness Perry of Southwark, chairwoman of the House of Lords backbench education committee, said she was "outraged" by the guidance.
She told BBC Radio 4's Today programme it was contrary to "the long struggle that the brave women of the early academics in the 19th Century had to get the provision to sit in lectures".
"There is no university campus in the whole of Britain which separates men and women and allows it."
Tariq Ramadan, professor of contemporary Islamic Studies at the Oxford University, said: "Depending on who is organising and when they are asking me, I don't have a problem talking in universities, in rooms and public venues where the people are together men and women.
"And some organisers are separating men and women."
He added: "If every time there is segregation I'm not going to talk then I'm not reaching the people that I want to reach and for them to listen."