Campaigners claim victory after Universities UK cancels sex segregation guidance

Campaigners against Universities UK guidance allowing religious speakers to segregate students by sex were celebrating this evening after the organisation  said it would review its position.

The announcement came hours after the prime minister's spokesperson said David Cameron felt "very strongly" about the issue.

Universities UK said it would seek new legal advice on whether external speakers invited to give talks on campus could ask for men and women to be separated.

The guidance insisted such a move would be legal if women were not discriminated against, but the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) said sex segregation was only permissible in religious premises.

The change in position comes after a week of protests from feminists and secular group.

"If more needs to be done to support universities in taking a clear and tough approach then of course the government will look at that," the prime minister's spokesperson said.

Education secretary Michael Gove said: "We should not pander to extremism. Speakers who insist on segregating audiences should not be indulged by educators.

"This guidance is wrong and harmful. Universities UK should withdraw it immediately."

The Universities UK document, which advises universities on the invitation of external speakers to campuses, includes a case study in which a representative of an "ultra-orthodox religious group" asks for male and female students hearing the talk to be segregated.

The document warns that the segregation must not discriminate against any students or it could be illegal under the Equalities Act but confirms that segregation itself would be acceptable as long as conditions for both men and women were identical.

"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," it reads.

"This issue could be overcome assuming the room can be segregated left and right, rather than front and back.

"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.

"If imposing an unsegregated seating area in addition to the segregated areas contravenes the genuinely-held religious beliefs of the group holding the event, or 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."

A petition demanding Universities UK rescind its endorsement of sex segregation has received  over 8,000 signatures.