Oxford students challenge tuition fees review 'secrecy'

By Sean Coughlan
BBC News education correspondent

Image caption,
Oxford students had Freedom of Information requests rejected

The Russell Group of elite universities has been accused by students of concealing its views on tuition fees until after the election.

Oxford University Student Union is angry the group asked for its submission to the Browne Review of fees in England to remain confidential.

A Freedom of Information request by the students to force the government to release the document has been rejected.

The Russell Group says it will publish its report in the "next few weeks".

'Incredibly dubious'

The Oxford University Student Union has been trying to find out what the influential Russell Group has submitted to the university funding review being carried out by Lord Browne.

The students say they deserve to know what is being said by an organisation representing their university - and that it is "incredibly dubious" that it is being withheld until after the election.

The review is considering how much students should pay to go to university in England - and whether the current maximum of £3,225 paid by students should be increased.

The Browne Review has received and published the arguments of a wide range of organisations, with its website saying: "There were over 90 submissions, all of which we have made available."

But the Russell Group, representing 20 leading universities, has asked for its submission not to be published.

The Oxford students' union has tried to use the Freedom of Information to force the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) to publish what has been submitted to the Browne Review.

The government department has refused, saying it is respecting the request for confidentiality of the Russell Group.

And it has told the students that there is a "public interest" exemption under Freedom of Information rules.

"This states that it may not be in the public interest for information to be released prematurely and out of context," says an e-mail from BIS to the Oxford students.

The students have published this e-mail exchange on their website.


The Oxford students say that holding back the publication until next month is an attempt to avoid public debate before the election.

Union vice-president Jonny Medland said there had been a "cynical gambit" over the timing of the review.

"Our fears that it's little more than a smokescreen for raising fees have been confirmed."

The Russell Group has rejected any suggestion of wanting to conceal its intentions - saying the submission was a draft document which needed to be seen in the context of a complete report.

This finalised report is scheduled to be published in the next few weeks, says the Russell Group - and so it is keeping to this timetable.

"We are working on our own independently researched report into the issues surrounding the funding of higher education which we anticipate will be completed in the next few weeks," said a Russell Group spokeswoman.

"We submitted our early findings for this report to the Browne Review in time for their first deadline and asked the review team to treat our advice as confidential, pending the publication of our final report.

"There is and has always been an intention to publish our final analysis of the issues addressed in the submission."

Earlier this year, Oxford's chancellor Lord Patten, speaking in a personal capacity, called for the scrapping of the "preposterous" limit on tuition fees.

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