Students who have laboured through three years of intensive training are discovering they cannot find any work or only part-time contracts. In some areas as many as 85 per cent of the latest graduates are unemployed.

The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) has identified a number of areas including Birmingham, Coventry, Sheffield, Surrey and Durham, where September graduates are having difficulty getting jobs.

Gill Robertson, an RCN student adviser, said: "I have never known it this bad. It is a serious problem and one that is going to be exacerbated come the next out-take in February.

"The average age of a student nurse is 29. These are not school-leavers. These are people who have given up jobs, made a proactive decision to take up nursing and worked extremely hard for three years."

Ms Robertson said many hospitals were in serious debt and were being forced to take cost-cutting measures. "It is almost entirely to blame on trust deficits and the fact that trusts are cash-strapped," she said. "It is easiest for them to put a freeze on jobs. The Government really needs to address the deficits."

The RCN is gathering further information on the problem, but already has considerable evidence. In one Birmingham cohort, only 10 to 15 per cent of September-leavers had found a nursing job, while in another Sheffield group, most had only secured part-time contracts.

"It's difficult to track this problem because trusts are not parting with information and they are also masking the problem by giving nurses part-time contracts," Ms Robertson said. "It is extremely short-sighted to make nurses pay because patient care depends on them."

Nursing Standard magazine, which has been investigating the problem for months, said that one university in Hampshire had already told students not to expect any jobs in the NHS. It said at least 1,000 nurses were expected to lose their jobs due to mounting hospital debts, which are set to hit £1bn in acute and community trusts across the country.

Iain Kightley, a member of the RCN's Association of Nursing Students, said: "Out of those who qualified recently at my university [Stirling], 20 out of 65 did not get jobs.

"Some are thinking of quitting their courses and morale is quite low."

A Department of Health spokeswoman said: "There are still lots of jobs in the NHS but we don't have the shortages we once had and there is more competition now. New staff may not always be able to find their first-choice job in their first-choice location and may need to be more flexible."

Helen Scott, 20: 'I'll do anything that pays me'

Despite taking on extra work to support herself as she studied to become a nurse, Helen Scott ended up thousands of pounds in debt.

But instead of being rewarded for three years' toil, she works behind the counter in a corner shop, having spent the past month pulling pints in a pub. Having qualified at Stirling University, she has been unable to find a job in her chosen profession and has also had to take work in supermarkets to support herself.

"I'm prepared to do anything. I'll work on the checkout - anything that pays me," she said. "I have applied for lots of jobs in nursing since the spring but there just isn't anything. In desperation I looked up all the nursing homes near by and phoned them up asking for a job. I'm waiting to hear back."

She is applying for a nursing post in the Royal Air Force and says many fellow students are also struggling to find work.