The row came after an apparent rise in sex-segregated seating at events held by university Islamic societies. Activist organisation Student Rights, which claims an anti-extremism agenda, produced research that "radical preachers" spoke at 180 university events between March 2012 and March 2013. In addition they say that segregated seating for men and women was promoted or implied at more than a quarter of the events.
UK equality law has long made an exception to allow for sex segregation at religious meetings where the doctrines of the religion require it, such as in most mosques and synagogues. However, critics had argued that university speaking events do not qualify as they do not constitute organised worship.
In response, UUK (of which Glasgow University Principal Anton Muscatelli is an elected board member) published its document "External speakers in higher education institutions", which commented that segregation was not only permissible, but actually required as to restrict such practices would be to effectively deny freedom of speech to those who requested such arrangements. Principal Muscatelli did however write a letter to UUK speaking out against the document.
The document went on to say that providing the segregation was side by side, as opposed to women being at the back where their ability to participate may be reduced, then "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."
Politicians moved quickly to express concern over UUK's endorsement of voluntary sex segregation. Education Secretary for England, Michael Gove, described the practice as "pandering to extremism", whilst Prime Minister David Cameron said: "I'm absolutely clear that there should not be segregated audiences for visiting speakers to universities in Britain. That is not the right approach. The guidance should not say that, universities should not allow this."
Meanwhile in the Scottish Parliament, SNP member and convener of the Education and Culture Committee, Stewart Maxwell MSP, tabled a motion supported by 45 other members to declare how they were "dismayed" and "disturbed" by the guidance.
Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of UUK, responded: "Universities UK agrees entirely with the Prime Minister that universities should not enforce gender segregation on audiences at the request of guest speakers. However, where the gender segregation is voluntary, the law is unclear. We are working with our lawyers and the EHRC to clarify the position."
The chief executive of the EHRC, Mark Hammond, made clear his view that sex segregation was "not permissible" under equality laws. He went on to say: "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."
Reacting to the row, Glasgow University Muslim Students Association spokesman Dawud Duncan told the Glasgow Guardian: "This debacle is unfortunately over an assumption that there is a group of 'women hating oppressors' in our universities - but this is just not the case in our Islamic societies. Women are consistently the mainstay of our executive committee and forced segregation just isn't a practice we could or would enforce. People like to express their gender in different ways. We've always had sex segregation in university sports, as well as female only activities run by feminist societies.
"What we have here is a classic case of Orientalism - indigenous gender expressions go unquestioned but foreign ones are castigated. Choosing to sit with men or women at a religious talk is not inherently harmful. Equality of treatment is a top priority for us as is freedom of choice. All we want is the same freedom to choose our own gender expressions as everyone else."
The matter affects Scottish universities differently to those south of the border. Whilst equality law is reserved to the Westminster parliament, education is a devolved matter and so the Holyrood Parliament has some scope to intervene.
Following the EHRC's concerns, UUK withdrew its guidance to universities pending a review.