BREXIT: UK universities seek legal advice to protect EU staff members

Out-Law News | 06 Dec 2016 | 4:09 pm | 2 min. read

There has been a "large spike" in immigration law related inquiries from UK universities and colleges, who are seeking to reassure anxious staff members concerned about the impact of Brexit, an employment law expert has said.

Similar queries have been coming from banking and financial services firms which, like academia, rely on highly skilled and mobile staff, according to employment law expert Euan Smith of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com. There are also serious concerns about how the UK construction industry will cope with post-Brexit restrictions on freedom of movement, given its heavy reliance on European labour, he said.

Employees who have lived continuously in the UK for over five years may be entitled to permanent residence or full citizenship, and employers should be able to provide these workers with information about their options, he said.

"This is obviously a very upsetting time for European passport holders who have lived in the UK for many years, and clients in the university and financial services sectors are coming to us and saying 'what can we do to assure our people'?" Smith said.

"Universities and other employers can go some way to reassure employees that they are doing their best to protect their interests, by giving them the information needed to make potentially life-changing decisions rather than leave them to seek individual advice," he said.

To date, Pinsent Masons has been enlisted to offer advice on protecting the position of academic staff by three different UK universities, while eight other institutions have also sought immigration-related advice.

The EU Treaty gives employees the right to seek permanent residence if they have lived continuously in the UK for at least five years. They may also qualify for UK citizenship after a six-year period. However, citizenship "might not suit everyone" and could create issues with employees' respective home nations, he said.

Employees who had not sought permanent residence status could run into problems post-Brexit, depending on the outcome of the negotiations, Smith said.

"If someone has lived here for 10 years, how do they prove that when they arrive at the UK border?" he said. "After Brexit, they could return to their European home state but then find themselves unable to return to the UK because they have no proof that they have acquired permanent residence status. For that reason, an application for a permanent resident's card may be their best option."

"Seeking permanent residence status would provide reassurance for worried staff that they have a future in the UK - but it is still a very political issue. Although EU nationals living in the UK may already have a right to remain under the EU treaty, the government has been reluctant to confirm so far that those people are guaranteed to be able to remain," he said.

Speaking to the House of Commons' Scottish Affairs Committee recently, University of Edinburgh principal Sir Timothy O'Shea called on the government to consider a 'special' deal covering free movement of academic staff as part of the Brexit negotiations. Non-UK EU citizens currently make up around 14% of UK university academic staff, and O'Shea warned that the potential impact of Brexit on higher education "ranges from bad, to awful, to catastrophic".