Protesters hit back at Universities UK last night after it emerged its guidance notes for external speakers said organisers should allow the segregation of students on the basis of gender.
The 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."
The move, which comes on the heels of complaints about universities curtailing the activity of atheist societies to avoid offending religious groups, triggered outrage among campaigners, many of whom gathered outside Universities UK last night to protest against the guidance.
"The fact that UK universities are prepared to endorse the segregation of women shows how far they have strayed from humanitarian values and the principle of universal human rights," human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell said.
"Gender apartheid is as abhorrent as race apartheid. The people who approved this policy are unfit to hold any public office - and should resign.
"Universities once pioneered the Enlightenment and liberal, progressive values. Now, it seems, they appease misogyny and cave in to religious sexism and intolerance."
He added: "The right of women and men to sit where they like is not negotiable. It is a basic matter of equality and personal freedom. No religion has the right to demand that public institutions bow to their prejudices and approve their segregationist policies.
"Universities have a moral and legal duty to uphold equality and respect for all. If they don't, we will fight them, just like the Suffragettes fought male chauvinism 100 years ago."
A petition demanding Universities UK rescind its endorsement of sex segregation has no received 8,000 signatures.