The National Union of Students said many of its members faced a shortfall of more than pounds 2,000 a year on average, as living costs outstripped the available students loans. A report published yesterday claimed "this waste of potential and resources is a national scandal".
A union survey found nine in ten full-time students were taking paid work to cover their costs - with four in ten working during term time.
Half said their work interfered with their studies. Students worked, on average, for 13 hours a week in term time, rising to 26 hours during holidays. A quarter of students said they were always short of money, and one in five said they missed meals because of financial difficulties. About half of those surveyed said money difficulties hindered their academic work.
Andrew Pakes, the union president, said: "A student underclass is emerging, people who always feel very hard up who are in acute difficulties with their studies. These students are failing to get the most out of their time in education and it is almost creating a caste system. The Government thinks that students have to get a degree to get a job, but they are being forced into debt."
He said the pounds 250 hardship grants introduced last year were welcome, but called for increased funding to be directed at the worst off.
A spokeswoman for the Department for Education and Employment said: "Student support is being increased in line with inflation and there are hardship and access funds available. We should not equate debt with hardship.
"Under the new loan arrangements, graduates will not repay anything until their earnings exceed pounds 10,000. Youhave to remember that graduates are likely to earn 20 per cent more than non-graduates after they get their degree."
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