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Last Updated: Thursday, 17 November 2005, 01:12 GMT
Tussle over student debt research
Student advert
A government advert shows "vultures" preying on debt fears
The organisation for university chiefs has been accused of suppressing research on student finances during the general election.

Documents obtained by the Times Higher Education Supplement show Universities UK cut "politically highly contentious" parts of a study it had commissioned.

The report focuses on student attitudes to debt and term-time employment.

Universities UK said interim findings were published in 2002 and it would be wrong to say the work was "suppressed".

'Negative publicity'

The initial findings confirmed that fear of debt was deterring potential students, Universities UK explained and this part of the study was used during its successful lobby for greater financial support for student.

The rest of the study focused on those already at university.

According to the Times Higher, Universities UK wanted to delay the publication of the second part of the study to "minimise negative publicity".

The Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce) was a partner in commissioning the research.

Its chief executive is said to have been so concerned he warned the head of Universities UK - Labour peer Diana Warwick - that she could be accused of "suppression".

'Very unhappy'

In June 2004 Hefce's chief statistician, John Thompson, wrote: "We now have a very rigorous piece of analysis... it is clearly in everyone's interest to avoid any further delays."

But Universities UK felt the analysis did not properly reflect the new fees, grants and bursaries system being introduced by the government.

The Times Higher says it was agreed Hefce would publish the report, but Universities UK controlled its content.

In March this year Mr Thompson wrote: "We would be very unhappy about publishing a report as complete when, in fact, it did not reflect the considered views of the authors."

Universities UK policy chief Tony Bruce removed parts which "politically remain highly contentious particularly during a general election period".

Unions representing lecturers and students - which opposed the government's plans for top-up fees - say the saga is extraordinary.

One of the main authors of the study, South Bank University's Professor Claire Callender, told the BBC News website she had no comment except "I'm delighted that it's finally being published".

'Informed the debate'

A spokesman for Universities UK said the results of the research were known in December 2002 so it was not realistic to talk of "suppressing" the work.

It had "informed the policy debate over fees and Universities UK's lobbying on the Higher Education Bill and showed that extra money needed to be put into student support, which was indeed the outcome".

Those changes needed to be reflected in the report, he said.

"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 the government's reforms."

Hefce itself had made further changes, he said.

"It is true that at that point, we looked for a date which avoided the party conferences - when things tend to get lost anyway.

"It was also deemed sensible to avoid it clashing with the government's new student finance advertising campaign, which would have served only to cloud the issue."

The government is spending millions explaining that although fees in England will rise, they no longer have to be paid in advance and there are grants for poorer students.




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