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BREXIT: How universities can avoid falling foul of EU referendum rules

FOCUS: Universities must remain politically neutral when it comes to campaigning on the UK's upcoming EU referendum, unless they are campaigning on specific issues that affect their charitable purpose.04 Apr 2016

This is part of Out-Law's series of news and insights from Pinsent Masons lawyers and other experts on the impact of the UK's EU referendum. Sign up to receive our Brexit updates by email. 

Universities are subject to the same rules as other charities when it comes to campaigning on referendums.

This means that while universities are allowed to comment on aspects of the referendum that affect their students or their funding, they cannot add their voice to a discussion on, for example, the impact of leaving the EU on the business community.

Judging what is acceptable is more complicated in a referendum than in a straight party political election, where it is more obvious how to remain neutral, but a university must avoid showing overall support for either a yes or no vote, and should not assist either side’s campaign financially or otherwise.

A university can set out summaries or research on the outcomes of yes or no across areas of higher education, and campaigning specific to the area of higher education in the context of the referendum is acceptable but it would be advisable to avoid an overall conclusion.

Universities are free to invite campaigners for a yes or no vote to attend meetings organised by the university or on university premises, but it would be advisable to ensure political neutrality by allowing both sides to have a say – either at the same event or with more than one event.

Students, on the other hand, should be encouraged to engage in debate all aspects of the referendum as part of their education, and the university can support this so long as it does not appear to be leaning in either direction. University academic staff members, too, are independent and allowed freedom of expression, but again the university cannot be seen to support their views.

Janet Hoskin is a charity law expert with Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com.

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