One in four students thinks it will take them up to 20 years to clear the debts they have accrued while at university, according to a survey published today.
Some are pessimistic that they will ever be able to clear them completely. The survey of almost 2,000 undergraduates, carried out for Endsleigh the student insurance provider, reveals that 38 per cent believed it would take up to a decade to be clear of debt.
A further 24 per cent were worried that their arrears would stay with them for 20 years, while 4 per cent were worried they would never pay them off.
The findings come as the Government prepares to launch a review of student fees. Vice-chancellors have already suggested top-up fees could be raised to £5,000 from just over £3,000. The CBI also called for a reduction in student maintenance grants so they are available only to those who really needed them – and for students to have to repay their loans at the market rate.
"The results of this survey point to the increasing financial strain today's student is under," said James Crocker, an Endsleigh financial adviser.
The survey, mostly of second and third-year students, showed that more than half (56 per cent) anticipated graduating with more than £15,000 worth of debt. A third of those questioned said they would probably have to borrow more than £20,000.
Just 8 per cent predicted they would graduate with less than £5,000 debt. A further 8 per cent said they could pay their debt off when they graduated.
The survey revealed that only two- fifths (39 per cent) were planning to get a job during the coming university year and that only 0.7 per cent, were living with their parents while they studied.
"With graduate debt at an all-time high and employment opportunities at an all-time low, it is astonishing that universities continue to demand ever higher fees," said Wes Streeting, president of the National Union of Students.
"The forthcoming review of university funding must look at alternatives to the disastrous current system of top-up fees. We are in danger of condemning a generation to a lifetime of debt."
Both Labour and the Conservatives are using the review not to announce their intentions on fees. Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat party leader, has said he could not abolish fees in the current economic climate.
Les Ebdon, chairman of the university think-tank million+, said: "Labour needs to stop shilly-shallying and say where it stands on fees and university funding. Labour needs to stop hiding behind the fees review."
Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, which commissioned the poll, warned the Labour party: "The top-up fees generation will be crucial in many seats at the next election. Today's poll shows that the country, particularly the top-up fees generation, will not stomach further increases."
Course credits: A long-term investment
Michael Mourmand, 19: Studying electronic engineering.
"I still would come to uni even if the fees were higher – the system of financial support for students is so robust. You know you will get into debt but you just have to deal with it. If they increase fees here in England, Scotland, with no fees, will benefit."
Sarah Moore, 18: Studying sports science
"I have a student loan but no grant. I'm hoping not to spend a lot, to keep the credit card bills as low as possible. If the fees were higher, it wouldn't stop me. Coming to uni is something I've always wanted to do. I suppose I will try to get a job to help with the money."
Stan Ouma, 20: Studying economics
"Getting into debt is a risk but life is a risk. Overall, it's a good investment. The only problem is that, as a graduate, you don't want debt to get to such a level that it takes most of your salary to pay it off. I have friends who were put off coming to uni because of that."