LONDON (Reuters) - Prime Minister David Cameron weighed into a debate over gender segregation at British universities on Friday, saying he believed separating men and women in the audiences for some guest speakers was unacceptable.
The issue arose earlier this year after events involving an Islamic speaker at University College London and at Leicester University were staged with separate seating for men and women.
Debate intensified last month when guidance by Universities UK - which represents 132 of the country’s top academic centres including Oxford and Cambridge - said voluntary separate seating for men and women may sometimes be appropriate if an external religious speaker requests it.
Over 9,000 people have signed a petition condemning Universities UK for the policy which they say endorses “gender apartheid”. On Tuesday, 100 people staged a protest outside Universities UK’s headquarters in London.
Politicians and student bodies have also criticised the stance.
“He (Cameron) doesn’t believe that guest speakers should be allowed to address segregated audiences and so he believes that Universities UK should urgently review its guidance,” his spokesman said.
Universities UK said it had withdrawn the part of its guidance on splitting audiences along gender lines pending clarity from the Equality and Human Rights Commission on the issue - after defending the guidance on Thursday.
The Leicester University lecture prompted newspapers in April to publish photographs of handwritten signs pointing “brothers” and “sisters” in different directions above a poster advertising a talk hosted by the university’s Islamic Society.
Leicester, a city in central England, is one of the most ethnically diverse places outside London where less than half of the population are white British people, according to the 2011 census.
The lecture at University College London in March resulted in the university banning the Islamic organisation involved.
Research by Student Rights, a group which aims to prevent extremism at universities, said that over the year to March 2013, 46 events at 21 separate institutions were found to have either explicitly promoted segregation by gender or implied that this would be the case. Six of these were cancelled before they took place, however, the group said.
Education Secretary Michael Gove told the Daily Mail newspaper on Friday: “We should not pander to extremism. Speakers who insist on segregating audiences should not be indulged by educators.”
Additional reporting by William James; Editing by Alison Williams