Navigating UK export controls: a brief overview

We have seen a dramatic increase in the number of education sector clients reaching out to us for advice on the effect of UK Export Control regulations on academic research. For academic professionals, navigating the legally complex world of UK Export Controls can seem like a daunting task. But fear not, we’re here to guide you through the ins and outs of these regulations and how they affect you and your research and teaching.

What are UK Export Controls?

UK Export Controls are a set of regulations designed to prevent the unauthorised export of goods, technology, or software from the UK, particularly those that could be used for military purposes or contribute to the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), human rights abuses, or international terrorism.

Although enforced through legislation such as the Export Control Act 2002 and the Export Control Order 2008, the details of these regulations are subject to frequent updates to reflect changes in geopolitical dynamics and UK foreign policy objectives. It is therefore important that up-to-date advice is received when concerned about your liability under the UK Export Controls.

Key concepts

It is unlikely that universities and similar bodies will be involved in the export of controlled goods or services.  However, the UK’s export controls also regulate the taking or dissemination of technology overseas, so called “technology transfer”.  In order to assess if this affect you, it is essential to consider five key questions:

1. Are you dealing with Technology?

Technology is very widely defined under the UK Export Controls and encompasses information necessary for the development, production or use of goods or software. This information can exist physically, in electronic transfers, remotely accessed systems and verbal communications.

2. Is this Technology being Exported?

Exportation involves the taking or sending of an item, including information and technology, outside of the UK.  This may apply to working online, in the cloud or through distributed computing (e.g. virtual learning environments). 

3. Is the Exported Technology ‘Controlled’?

Subject to specific exemptions, “Controlled Technology” is Technology that requires export authorisation.  The regulations outline specific circumstances in which Technology is ‘Controlled’, including (but not limited to) if the Technology is expressly referenced in the government’s regularly updated UK Strategic Export Control List.

4. Does a relevant exemption apply?

Despite the above, export licences are not required for (non-WMD related) Controlled Technology if an exemption applies. For example, there are specific exemptions for technology or software which exists in the public domain and meets the definition of basic scientific research.

5. Is an Export Control Licence required?

If Controlled Technology, which is not excluded under an exemption, is to be Exported then its Export must be under the terms of an export licence. There are different licence options available depending on the specific circumstances of each case. These can be obtained by registering with the Export Control Joint Unit.

Consequences of non-compliance

Breaching UK Export Controls, whether through unauthorised exports or failing to comply with a relevant export licence, is a serious criminal offence and carries severe penalties, including licence revocation, seizure of items, fines and imprisonment up to 10 years. Due to the potential severity of punishments, understanding and complying with UK Export Controls is essential for anyone involved in international research or teaching. Stay informed, follow the guidelines, and ensure your research and teaching remains lawful and ethical.

Our lawyers are experienced in assisting clients across the education sector when dealing with UK Export Control regulations. If you need any advice or would like any further explanation on anything discussed above, please contact us and we will be happy to help.

Our content explained

Every piece of content we create is correct on the date it’s published but please don’t rely on it as legal advice. If you’d like to speak to us about your own legal requirements, please contact one of our expert lawyers.

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