Sofia was an Associate Editor at Wonkhe.

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

A no-deal Brexit is the sort of once-in-a-generation event that arguably could be hard to prepare for. Universities are war-gaming a range of scenarios that range from the probable to the highly unlikely, and drawing on insight and practice from history, from other sectors and from other countries to inform preparations.

While Brexit has featured on risk registers since the 2016 referendum (and even before), some at the time might have dismissed Brexit itself, never mind a no-deal Brexit, as highly unlikely. That view now looks rather too sanguine. While a Brexit deal may yet be secured, it makes sense to prepare for the worst while hoping for the best. Fortunately, universities are well-versed in planning for business continuity and managing risk. At sector level, representative bodies are collaborating in a no-deal taskforce that keeps providers informed of the latest government guidance.

What is business continuity planning?

UCISA, the higher education sector’s association for information services professionals has recently, in collaboration with AHUA, AMOSSHE, ARC, AUDE, BUFDG, SCONUL and Jisc published guidance on approaches to business continuity in universities. Drew Cook, Director of ICT at the University of Lincoln and Chair of the UCISA board of trustees explains:

In a nutshell, business continuity is about planning for situations that cannot be dealt with using normal/business as usual operations. All organisations should have some form of business continuity plan in preference to dealing with situations on the hoof.

Planning for business continuity is different from risk management, or indeed, dealing with a crisis: “risk management is about looking at what can be done to prevent a fire in the first place and if a fire occurs how can we limit the damage” says Drew. “If a fire occurs we need to respond to this as an emergency, for example, evacuating the building and calling the fire service. Business continuity determines what we do following the fire to keep the organisation running, and finding alternative locations to operate from”.

Anticipating and preparing for worst-case scenarios in this context is simply good sense, especially when the consequences are unpredictable. Mark Essex, director of public policy at KPMG suggests that planning for Brexit is akin to planning for any other contingency: “you have a disaster recovery plan, you make sure it’s a good one, and you hope you never need to use it”.

How bad will it be?

In the immediate aftermath of leaving without a deal, the impact for universities is likely to be similar to that for other large organisations. Mark points out that while the politicians on both sides of the Channel are likely to be “grown-up” about managing the impact, the known unknown is in the behaviour of non-state actors– protestors, workers taking industrial action or unpredictable reactions of those who are disrupted by the changes. Disruption to fuel supplies could prompt fuel shortages, or the perception of fuel shortages. There is a strong likelihood of disruption at ports that will affect the flow of goods and people. There could be a degree of civil unrest to contend with. Rapid alterations in exchange rates could constrain purchasing power with overseas suppliers, one reason why many providers are seeking stability in longer-term fixed price deals, even if they may be more expensive in the short term.

How quickly these issues are resolved depends partly on the swift action of national leaders, but also on the effectiveness of local leaders in key parts of the country. “If we have a no-deal Brexit, the newsfeed in November is going to be of aerial shots of chaos” says Mark – with a knock-on impact on the reputation of the UK as a viable destination for travel or work. University Alliance is concerned about the impact on recruitment of international early career researchers to its €6.5 million Doctoral Training Alliance, for example. That said, these impacts are likely to be short-lived, and for universities as organisations, have minimal sustained impact as compared to businesses that are dependent on short lead-time imports and exports.

What to stockpile?

While the government has asked pharmaceutical companies to stockpile enough supplies for six months in the case of a no-deal Brexit, universities are not publicly discussing their own stockpiling plans. Some universities are collaborating with other nearby universities and discussing the possibility of jointly stockpiling non-perishable food, water and other essentials. Other universities with large animal-testing centres are ensuring plans to protect animals are in place. Some UK scientists are stockpiling reagents and other lab supplies. IT departments are bringing forward planned development and maintenance.

Universities may also need to consider spare parts for critical equipment and whether the maintenance of equipment depends on a specialist team being flown in from abroad. In general, it’s sensible to check with suppliers of critical equipment to test their contingency plans – simply having a contract for the supply of parts will probably not be sufficient. Mark notes that warehouse space is particularly under pressure in November due to the lead up to the Christmas season, so any contingency supplies are likely to require storage on university property.

The wisdom of stockpiling goods varies depending on what’s being considered and the institution in question. As an IT director, Drew Cook gave the example of critical networking equipment, which may come from US or EU suppliers. It would be possible to buy in advance to create a stock, but another approach would be to move key projects forward to compensate for increased delivery time and cost. At Lincoln, scheduled maintenance has been brought forward – the university is substantially ahead of its planned upgrades schedule, having worked hard to be so over the past two years. And changes in the availability and cost of particular supplies are hardly unprecedented: “from a financial perspective, there are always exchange rate fluctuations, so rather than a unique Brexit issue, something like this falls very much under business as usual.”

The flow of goods may include animals – GuildHE told us that some universities are considering the impact of potential disruption in the flow of animals both for agri specialists and also for competitions – one member hosts international horse races.

Are universities considering closing?

Although some universities have dismissed the idea, others are considering closing, whether fully or in part, in the case of a no-deal Brexit. If universities had closed in March, they might have been (somewhat) protected by the Easter break, but closing in November will be more complex.

Students would lose teaching time, which in turn could result in complaints to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator and a case for compensation. Some students live on their university campus year-round (postgraduate students, for example), and others wouldn’t be able to return home, making closing accommodation blocks unviable. Staff may need to respond to urgent visa and travel-related enquiries, and counselling and disability service staff might be needed on standby.

A number of manufacturing companies are planning to close in order to avoid the appearance of contributing to the disruption of access to essential supplies, but universities have so many moving and dispersed parts that full closures would be difficult to implement and currently seem unlikely. One sensible measure would be to ensure there is a clear point of information to communicate planned closures or restrictions to service in the case of a national holiday or the (unlikely) case of widespread travel disruption such that provision of teaching becomes unviable.

Students and staff abroad

The Council of the European Union has passed some limited legislative acts aimed at protecting both EU citizens in the UK and UK citizens in the EU in the context of a no-deal Brexit, as well as students and staff taking part in the Erasmus+ programme. Social security has been safeguarded for all UK and EU citizens whether they’re in the UK or EU, which means that university staff and students abroad will be covered temporarily. Erasmus+, PEACE and INTERREG VA programmes have had their funding secured in the case of a no-deal Brexit, and participating students and staff will carry on receiving their grants.

Although these contingency measures will be temporary and limited in scope, they apply to all member states, will ensure “equality of treatment” and aim to prevent severe disruption. For students and staff in the UK, most universities are advising against non-essential travel around the no-deal window in case of disruption. Some universities are war-gaming travel problems, and planning how to respond to hypothetical groups of students or staff stranded in the EU.

Most universities have issued advice that all senior staff and those with critical positions should ideally not make plans to be abroad in the no-deal window. If scheduling events that depend on the presence of international speakers, it may be necessary to take out additional insurance to cover the costs of cancelling the event.

Despite the current assumption that free movement will end abruptly on 31 October, the Home Office has assured EU citizens in the UK that they have until 31 December 2020 to apply for settled status. But EU citizens planning to return from a trip abroad after 31 October are concerned: do they simply need their passports, or will they need extra proof of identity? The government confirmed that EU citizens would be able to use their passports and identity cards until the introduction of a new immigration system (perhaps in 2021), but some people without confirmed settled status have reported being advised by government helpline staff to take proof of residence such as council tax bills with them, to ease their return to the UK. Some universities are helping students and staff apply for settled status, which may smooth their path if they need to leave the UK before 31 October. Universities UK has noted that universities may need to liaise with insurers over staff and student health insurance.

The Office for Students has published guidance for UK students studying in the EU in the context of a no-deal Brexit. Despite their caveat that it’s unlikely that UK students on undergraduate and postgraduate courses in the EU will have to return home, OfS notes that for students experiencing a “change in circumstances” relating to no-deal, it may be possible to transfer onto UK courses and access student loans.

Data processing and transfer

There is also a need to plan for potential changes to the status of an institution as a data processor, as in the event of no-deal the UK could become – in GDPR terms – a third country.

For example, a funded relationship with a European research body may involve the processing of personal data. As part of the EU this relationship is covered by GDPR, so it’s clear to all involved that appropriate measures and controls are in place. When dealing with an organisation outside of Europe, data processing agreements often use EU standard data protection clauses. Unless a Brexit deal includes keeping the UK within the EEA block for data protection purposes, or recognises the UK as a country with adequate data protection legislation (as with Canada, the US “privacy shield” arrangement, and others) the UK would be treated as a third country, meaning that assurance would be more complex.

Even though data management practise itself may not have changed, clear legal recognition of expected practice is hugely important in agreeing these contracts. Proper planning can ensure this documentation is readily available – and could mean the difference between winning a research contract and going without. In the short-term and if crisis situations emerge, universities will need to be careful how they handle data around them. For example, simply confirming to a concerned parent on the phone that a student is studying at the institution could fall foul of regulations.


Universities broadly seem to have a similar approach to communications around no-deal Brexit. Most universities cover information on fees and funding, GDPR, Erasmus+, research, insurance and healthcare and recommend that students and staff currently out of the country check their visa dates, passport validity and travel insurance arrangements. One university mentions that their Brexit group is working on no-deal issues relating to medicine, but most university comms appears to be focused on providing fact-based government information and avoiding areas of uncertainty.

Some university Brexit pages are sparser than others and simply provide up to date information; others make clear their continuing commitment to supporting students and staff from around the world. Unusually, one university has no outward-facing no-deal or Brexit pages for current or prospective students and staff.

Most universities are focusing on the potential uncertainty and distress facing students and staff in the case of a no-deal Brexit, setting up hotlines and regularly updating their pages with new information and government guidance. A number of providers with big international student populations, acknowledging the mental health impact of no-deal issues, are offering counselling support – with some even providing 24/7 support over weekends and counselling available for students overseas.

Until it happens, no one can predict what the real impact of no-deal Brexit will be. The best that the sector can do for now is plan for the worst. And hope for the best.

One response to “Preparing for the worst and hoping for the best: the plan for no-deal Brexit

  1. In the event of ‘no deal’ Brexit on 31st October, what’s the sector’s understanding of the legal basis for continuing to charge differential tuition fees between students from EU and from non-EU domiciles from 1st November?

    Is this discrimination enshrined in statutes/regulations that continue to apply after ‘no deal’ Brexit … and if so what will be their expiry date or how quickly can we expect the Johnson government to remove them?

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