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Brexit costs universities thousands in legal advice

UK universities have shelled out thousands of pounds on Brexit-related legal advice and consultancy services since the year of the referendum, Research Fortnight can reveal.

According to data obtained from Russell Group universities through freedom of information requests, some institutions have racked up bills amounting to tens of thousands of pounds to help prepare for the UK’s impending exit from the European Union.

Of the institutions that provided useable data, the biggest spender was the University of Exeter, which paid more than £60,000 for specialist immigration advice, support and workshops for staff between January 2016 and March 2019.

Across the 14 institutions which said they had invested in Brexit-related advice, a total of almost £240,000 had been spent—an average of more than £17,000 per university.

“In the aftermath of the referendum, many of our European colleagues had concerns about their residency and status in the UK and we wanted to offer as much support as we could to our workforce,” a spokesman for the University of Exeter told Research Fortnight.

The University of Sheffield came in second with nearly £45,000 spent over the same period. The university confirmed that the money was spent on legal advice including a helpline where staff could discuss their individual circumstances with an immigration specialist, and a series of information sessions.

In addition, the university said it had engaged existing staff to work on Brexit preparations. “This includes scenario planning, analysing impact and action required to mitigate the potentially significant impact of changes which may lie ahead”, it said.

University College London ranked third, with about £30,000 spent on legal fees. This figure is likely to increase, as the institution said it was still seeking professional help to prepare for Brexit. Part of the money spent so far paid for help to understand the implications of a no-deal Brexit for data protection, UCL said.

Brexit spending

Among Scottish universities, the highest spending on Brexit-related consultancy and legal work was reported by the University of Glasgow, which spent about £24,400 in 2017 and 2018.

King’s College London, meanwhile, declared having spent about £13,500 in 2018 and 2019. This included £10,000 on a short-term contract to model EU and international student recruitment markets, £2,000 on external consultancy to upskill student visa advisers and a further £1,500 on visa advice sessions for staff.

Universities’ spending on legal and consultancy work could ramp up if the UK leaves the EU without a deal. University vice-chancellors have consistently warned that such a scenario could send shockwaves through the sector, harming research funding and international collaborations. 

At an emergency summit on 10 April, EU leaders agreed to allow the UK to leave the EU any time up to 31 October. The UK will have to hold European elections on 23 May unless MPs have ratified a Brexit deal before that. If the UK does not hold European elections, it will leave on 1 June without a deal.

“Alongside many other sectors of the UK economy and society, for universities a no-deal Brexit would be hugely damaging,” a spokesperson for the vice-chancellors’ group Universities UK said. “To remain at the leading edge of research and education post-Brexit, universities need strong international links and immigration policy that allows them to attract talented staff and students.”

Rajiv Naik, a solicitor specialising in immigration at the firm Fragomen, told Research Fortnight that many institutions had sought support on the settlement scheme to register European nationals living in the country.

The Home Office is rolling out the scheme as it prepares for the end of freedom of movement between the UK and the EU after Brexit. “As a result, a lot of academic institutions are having to provide that information to staff and students,” Naik said.

Of the 21 Russell Group universities that provided useable data in response to Research Fortnight’s freedom of information request, 14 had paid for legal advice and consultancy services. The remaining seven institutions did not spend any money.

The Russell Group has 24 members.

A version of this article also appeared in Research Fortnight and Research Europe