University vice-chancellors were accused this week of suppressing vital research on student debt during the run-up to the May 2005 general election in order to avoid criticism of the Government's higher education policies.
Documents released to The Times Higher under the Freedom of Information Act reveal that Universities UK, the vice-chancellors' umbrella body, ordered sweeping cuts of "politically contentious" sections of a study it had commissioned on students' attitudes to debt and the negative impact of term-time employment.
UUK, a strong supporter of the Government's top-up fees policy, insisted that publication be delayed until next week - nearly two years after the report was submitted - to "minimise negative publicity" and to prevent "bad news" emerging during the annual student recruitment round for 2006.
The Higher Education Funding Council for England, a partner in commissioning the research, was so concerned about the changes and the delays that its chief executive, Sir Howard Newby, warned UUK's chief, the Labour peer Diana Warwick, that she could face accusations of "suppression"
and of breaching "research ethics".
The report, Survey of Higher Education Students' Attitudes to Debt and Term-time Working and Their Impact on Attainment , by Claire Callender, South Bank University professor of social policy, was handed to UUK as a final draft in December 2003.
It is understood that the report links students' term-time employment with poorer performance.
In January 2004, just days before the Bill introducing top-up fees scraped through the House of Commons by five votes, Professor Callender privately complained to a Hefce colleague that UUK was "sitting on" the work, as its findings were "too politically sensitive" to publish.
In June 2004, just weeks before the Bill became an Act, John Thompson, Hefce's chief statistician, wrote to UUK: "We have a very rigorous piece of analysis... it is clearly in everyone's interest to avoid any further delays."
But by February 2005, UUK said it was unhappy with the fact that the report did not properly reflect the new fees, grants and bursaries arrangements.
It was agreed that Hefce would publish "a limited version of the report"
online, but UUK held the copyright and insisted on control over its content and publication timing.
In March, Mr Thompson wrote to UUK policy chief Tony Bruce asking for "ethical principles in commissioning research".
"We would be very unhappy about publishing a report as complete when, in fact, it did not reflect the considered views of the authors," he said.
Mr Bruce replied that sections of the report "remain highly contentious, particularly during a general election period".
Later that month he ordered the removal of the "executive summary, most of chapter one and chapter nine". He said that UUK would agree to publication only after the general election in May, adding: "This report covers... issues that affect the vital interests of UUK."
Matt Waddup, assistant general secretary of the Association of University Teachers said it was "extraordinary" that UUK had been trying to suppress the research when lecturers and students were uniting to fight the top-up fees bill.
Roger Kline, head of universities at Natfhe, said the case was particularly alarming as UUK has a duty to uphold all academics' freedom to publish their research.
Kat Fletcher, National Union of Students' president, said: "It's outrageous that UUK would seek to withhold such key information... in such an underhand way."
However, a spokesman for UUK said that it was not "realistic to talk of suppressing" the work as interim findings were published in December 2002, and these indicated that potential students were being deterred from higher education by fear of debt. These findings, he said, did inform the policy debate over top-up fees.
He said the study was commissioned well before the fee and grants system was introduced in the 2004 Act, and UUK was keen to reflect the changed arrangements, which required further work.
"The material regarded as 'politically contentious' referred to statements made by the researchers not based on research evidence but on speculative sections about the possible impact of government reforms," he said.
"Subjective comment... had not been agreed in the contract."
UUK said that it wanted a late November publication because "things get lost" during the September political party conferences, and it did not want the publication to clash with "the Government's new student finance advertising campaign, which would have served only to cloud the issue".
It is unclear how much of the report survives, but the original version said that student debt is likely to increase to an average of £15,000 by 2010 following the new funding arrangements.
It said that the future impact of the new fees and support package on students' paid employment was "difficult to predict", but that the issue would remain "part of the landscape".