Unpublished research commissioned by the Browne Review showed that students and parents viewed tuition fees of £6,000 as "the highest reasonable amount" and feared that variable fees would deter poor students from high-priced courses and universities.
But the review's report to the government did not refer directly to the opinion survey, despite it being the sole piece of research commissioned by the Browne panel.
Times Higher Education obtained the survey results under the Freedom of Information Act.
The survey, conducted last June, presented £6,000 "as the maximum level at which fees would be capped". Some see this as an indication that the Browne panel later changed its plans under pressure from the Conservative-led coalition government, which came into office seeking deep cuts for its deficit-reduction programme.
However, those close to the review insist that the figure of £6,000 was hypothetical, arguing that the panel would not have revealed its final plans to students and parents months before the report's publication.
The review, led by Lord Browne of Madingley, the former chief executive of BP, recommended unlimited fees above a £6,000 "soft" cap and the abolition of the teaching grant for all but "priority subjects".
The coalition adopted the plans for the teaching grant - cutting £2.9 billion annually from the public sector borrowing requirement by 2014-15 - but opted for a "hard" fee cap of £9,000.
The opinion survey report states: "Participants were asked for their responses to increasing the fee cap to £10,000. Most believed that £6,000 was the highest reasonable amount for students to pay for fees and that a rise to £10,000 would be too high."
It adds: "Those from lower socio-economic groups were more debt averse and concerned that the tuition-fee premium of a more expensive course was not necessarily worth the associated debt, despite the possibility of higher wage returns."
A later passage states: "Some students and parents from across socio-economic groups thought that variable fees might reinforce a perception that some universities and courses were only for those from higher income households."
And it goes on to say: "Most full-time students and parents ... believed that the government should pay at least half the cost of higher education. This is because the personal benefits of higher education were seen by many to match the benefits to society."
Les Ebdon, chair of the Million+ group of new universities, said the review had "ignored the findings and views of those who were interviewed, who showed a lot more understanding of the implications of a withdrawal of public investment in teaching than either the Browne Review or the government".
He added: "It speaks volumes that this research was not released to the public or to MPs prior to the vote on fees."
Roger Brown, professor of higher education policy at Liverpool Hope University and a vocal critic of the government's plans, said that "the one piece of independent research commissioned by the Browne committee was one that it does not appear to have taken much notice of in its final recommendations".
The survey respondents
The survey involved "eight half-day workshops with 20 people in each and six triad interviews with Year 12 and 13 pupils, their parents, first-year undergraduate higher education students, and prospective part-time undergraduate students".
In conclusion, the survey report finds that for most students, a £6,000 cap "would not prevent them from attending university".
It says parents were generally more debt averse than students.
On the presentation of fee levels to participants, it says: "Students and parents understood the key information, eg that there could be variable fees, the tuition fees could increase up to £6,000, and that loans could be available to cover the cost of tuition fees."
Professor Ebdon highlighted the contrast with the review's final recommendations, saying this "suggested that the advent of the new government and the obsession with reducing the public sector borrowing requirement sent (the review panel) in a different direction".