Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Bristol CU Discrimination Investigation

The Report

Last week, the University of Bristol Student Union (UBU) released the report into discrimination against female speakers by the University of Bristol Christian Union (BUCU), widely reported at the end of last year. This discrimination was revealed in an e-mail to CU members stating that the executive had decided women may not speak at some high-profile BUCU events unless accompanied by their husband. BUCU was found to have broken the UBU Equality Policy and will be monitored by UBU until July to ensure they comply. If they fail to do this, further sanctions may be imposed, including disaffiliation.

The report gives a fairly damning insight into the organisation where a culture of "different but equal" had informed what roles were suitable and not suitable for men and women. That some BUCU students thought that this was appropriate policy for a student society is shocking and perhaps explains why this didn't come to light earlier.

Some Concerns

Whilst the report is thorough, explains clearly what happened and the sanctions seem proportionate, there were two aspects which were disappointing.

1) The recommended sanctions have no detail. Close monitoring of the CU until July seems a reasonable sanction, but details of how this will be implemented are needed. Will the CU be required to minute all meetings and submit these minutes to UBU officers? What will the timetable of interactions between UBU officials and the CU exec be? How often will UBU officials meet with the CU exec? At Student Council, Berti assured me that a schedule of meetings and milestones to be reached will be established, but that it would not have been appropriate to include them in this report. At the time of writing, it had not been confirmed when this would be finalised.

The sanctions should also require the CU to release a final statement committing to the Equality Policy in full and explicitly removing the barrier to women speaking unaccompanied at high-profile BUCU events. At Student Council, Matt Oliver, President of BUCU, said that their last statement had done this, but this is clearly not the case. It was a business-as-usual statement which committed to "biblical equality" (different but equal) and to inviting women speakers to all events, but not explicitly as keynote, unaccompanied speakers.
In line with our basic position throughout that process, which has not been widely publicised, the Executive Committee now wish to make clear that we will extend speaker invitations to both women and men, to all BUCU events, without exception. BUCU is utterly committed to reflecting the core biblical truth of the fundamental equality of women and men.
- BUCU Statement, 05/Dec/2012

One member of the student council, clearly frustrated by the idea of more empty words, asked whether the CU should demonstrate their commitment to equality by inviting female speakers. Oliver responded that they now had a female speaker in their schedule, though, at the the time of writing, you'd be hard-pressed to find her on their website.

2) Ignorance of Human Rights was accepted as a mitigating factor. In mitigating factor "5.2.1 Visibility of Documents" the CU committee claimed "that they were not aware of the Equality Policy and claimed never to have seen the Code". Putting to one side the key legal principle that ignorance of the law is no excuse, this seems unlikely for two reasons:

- 2.1) In the text of the Initial Statement, Matt Oliver writes, "I encourage you to pray about this and to chat to any of the exec about it but also to guard the way we all talk about it in the coming weeks, making sure we’re not gossiping." There would be no need for this call for secrecy if the CU executive felt entirely comfortable with the decision they had taken and were willing to defend it in public.

- 2.2) Equality isn't an UBU-specific rule like subsidising broadsheet newspapers. UBU is required by UK law, in the Equality Act 2010, to ensure that no discrimination occurs in any of its subdivisions or member societies. 

Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights prohibits discrimination on grounds of certain protected characteristics including sex. Cases surrounding issues of equality and human rights are frequently reported in the media and it seems highly unlikely that students attending the University of Bristol would be ignorant of these. In January this year, four high profile cases were brought to the European Court of Human Rights on the grounds of "Christian persecution". In two of the cases, Christians had claimed the right to discriminate on grounds of sexual orientation, another protected characteristic, and both of them were rejected.

When deciding the reasonableness of ignorance of equality, it is important to generalise and keep in mind the average student society leader. Would an average student society leader be aware that equal treatment of people regardless of gender was required by law? Surely. Would the defence of ignorance mitigate discrimination on grounds of other protected characteristics such as sexual orientation or race? Surely not.


This report sets out the principles of equality and condemns "biblical concepts" of "equal but different" as unacceptable in a student society. It does, however, undermine this conviction by being too generous in mitigation. Students need to know that if they see discrimination occurring in a society then they can report it, it will be taken seriously by UBU and UBU will support them 100%. This is especially important for members of religious societies where a conservative culture can often lead to more liberal students feeling isolated. Hopefully more students will come forward in future to challenge inequality in their societies, report it to UBU and call it out.

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