By a Newsnet reporter
Pro-Union parties at Holyrood have come under fire after it emerged Labour, Conservative or Lib Dem MSPs have refused to back a call opposing the segregation of university students on the basis of gender.
The failure of opposition parties to back a Scottish Parliament motion opposing segregation in universities has been branded as ‘baffling’ by the chair of Holyrood’s Education and Culture committee, Stewart Maxwell.
Universities UK issued guidance to universities which suggested accepting requests from guest speakers to segregate audiences by gender could be acceptable. Despite Labour’s Chuka Umunna having written an article strongly condemning the guidance, not a single Labour MSP has thus far backed the motion in the Scottish Parliament.
Following the publication of the Universities UK guidance, the Scottish Parliament’s Education Committee agreed this week to write to Universities UK and Universities Scotland seeking clarification.
Mr Maxwell has previously written to Universities Scotland on this matter. The Scottish organisation made clear they were not consulted on the Universities UK advice.
Commenting, the SNP MSP said:
“This advice from Universities UK seems to fly in the face of equal rights – to say nothing of common sense.
“It has understandably sparked a lot of concern as people cannot understand why this body would suggest segregation in universities could be acceptable.
“That is why it is utterly baffling that opposition parties have failed to stand up for equality and back my motion.”
Labour MP Chuka Umunna was said to have been “horrified” to learn that universities would be allowed to separate men and women at public events. Mr Umunna, the Shadow Business Secretary, said a future Labour government would not tolerate segregation in our universities.
He said: “It offends basic norms in our society. Of course people should be free to practise their religion privately in places of worship and at religious events.
“But universities are publicly funded places of research, learning and teaching and, as such, there is no place in my view for state-sponsored segregation.”
Despite the senior Labour MP’s comments, Johann Lamont’s party has failed to back similar calls at Holyrood.
Stewart Maxwell added: “Labour’s Chuka Umunna has claimed his party would outlaw gender segregation, but not a single one of his party’s MSPs has backed my motion so far.
“The Education Committee will be writing to both Universities UK and Universities Scotland asking them to outline their position.
“In particular Universities UK should explain why they think it is acceptable for them to suggest that segregation could be appropriate.
“People are looking for answers and Universities UK has a clear duty to provide an explanation for the guidance they have issued.”
There was further controversy after the UK’s equality watchdog announced that the policy may in fact be illegal. Mark Hammond, the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s chief executive, said gender segregation was “not permissible” under equalities laws.
Mr Hammond said: “Equality law permits gender segregation in premises that are permanently or temporarily being used for the purposes of an organised religion where its doctrines require it.
“However, in an academic meeting or in a lecture open to the public it is not, in the commission’s view, permissible to segregate by gender.”
Stewart Maxwell lodged the following motion:
That the Parliament is dismayed that Universities UK has issued guidance to higher education institutions in Scotland indicating that it is acceptable to separate attendees at meetings by gender; believes that this breaks the spirit of equalities legislation and is reminiscent of the separate but equal doctrine in United States law, which justified segregation; is disturbed that the religious beliefs of some speakers are thought to trump the rights of women; does not believe that allowing audiences to mix at university events curtails freedom of speech in any way, and considers that if segregation is enforced by gender then the case against segregation by race, religion, sexual orientation and disability has been profoundly weakened.