The findings will offer ammunition to traditionalists who say that school and examination standards are leaving even the brightest pupils badly prepared for university.
Nearly one-fifth of those questioned also felt that they were under pressure to give students good grades in examinations because of the need to compete with other universities in the market place.
The drop in standards has been particularly dramatic in mathematics where eight out of ten lecturers think that freshers are less well-prepared than they were.
Overall, 59 per cent think that the standard is down while just 10 per cent think they have stayed the same, says the survey by Continental Research which questioned 302 professors and lecturers in 50 universities.
English dons are the least worried about standards. One-third think that they have improved and just over one-third think they are worse.
Science and engineering academics, however, are only slightly less gloomy than their colleagues in mathematics. In languages, six out of ten think there has been a fall.
Most dons were cautious about the way in which the government policy of rewarding universities which attract the most students had affected marking in degree examinations. Only 6 per cent said they agreed strongly that they were under pressure to give students good grades though a further 13 per cent said they slightly agreed. However, two-thirds said that they strongly disagreed. Again, dons in mathematics felt under more pressure than their colleagues in other subjects.
Nearly three-quarters of those questioned thought that the quality of university education had declined markedly because of spending cuts. The worst effect, they said, had been increasing class sizes and less contact with individual students.
Fewer than one-third backed a national scheme for student loans for tuition fees to be repaid through national insurance, unlike university vice-chancellors who supported such a scheme. At present, students loans are available only for living costs.
They were even more opposed to individual universities charging top-up tuition fees. Several universities had said that they would consider top- ups after last year's budget cuts.
Vice-chancellors have welcomed the relief offered in last month's Budget announcement and urged universities not to charge extra fees. But governors at the London School of Economics will tonight decide whether or not to charge top-up fees.
Education+, The Tabloid: Academe under stress