Some students are even taking on full-time jobs on top of full-time university courses, according to research to be unveiled at a conference next month.
Academics fear that standards may fall because undergraduates spend too much time away from their books. They say some degree courses may have to be extended to cope with sharp increases in the numbers of students working their way through college.
A survey by researchers at the University of Central England found that more than 40 per cent of full-time undergraduates were holding down a part-time job, up from less than one-third three years ago. They believe that up to 70 per cent of students nationally may now be supplementing their income to help with the new pounds 1,000-a-year university tuition fees.
Lindsey Bowes, one of the researchers, said: "People are looking at 60 to 70 per cent of their full-time students working their way through university. There is evidence which suggests that this does have an impact on the student experience."
Student leaders warned that undergraduates faced a "stark choice between working to pay the rent and going to the library".
The survey, for the National Union of Students, estimates that as many as 80,000 students had regular part-time jobs. Andrew Pakes, NUS national president, said: "A lot of student jobs are not about transferable skills, they are stacking shelves or serving in bars and night-clubs and they are worked like donkeys.
"Outside London the Government reckons you can live on pounds 3,500. You only have to look at rents to see the students have to work. The danger is that we are moving towards an American-style system where students work through university, but that will damage the ethos of higher education and could be damaging to degrees."
Tom Wilson, head of higher education at the lecturers' union NATFHE, which is organising next month's conference, said that there had been a sharp increase in the number of students forced to work to support their studies.
He said: "There is already evidence that it does have an impact on drop- out rates. It may be leading people to extend the length of their course and it could mean that students pass their degrees, but with a 2.2 rather than a 2.1."
At De Montfort University in Leicester, a commercial agency Workbank has placed more than 100 students in part-time jobs since the beginning of term. Mike Fetters, a former president of the university's students' union who now works for the agency, said: "With so many students now facing annual tuition fees [jobs] can bring in some much-needed extra cash without eating into study time."
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