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Sex for tuition fees: Are universities just refusing to face up to the facts?

Institutions ‘bury heads in sand’ over students' sex work

Student sex work could be contributing hundreds of millions of pounds a year towards the higher education economy, according to researchers who claim that institutions are more concerned about preserving their image than investigating the issue.

The first academic study of its kind suggests that as many as 6 per cent of students could now be employed in part-time sex work such as pole or lap dancing, stripping, escorting or prostitution to help fund their studies.

Based on the results of a questionnaire completed by 200 students at 29 UK institutions, academics from the universities of Kingston and Leeds investigated the links between health, sexual abuse history and financial circumstances. Their research, published in the journal Sex Education, found that the “higher education economy” could be gaining up to £355m a year (an average of £2.15m per institution) from the sex industry.

The researchers claimed their work had been delayed because of concerns raised before receiving “ethical clearance” to conduct the study. They blamed a reluctance by academic management to sanction investigations into student sex work.

“Objections were raised to asking questions [previously] cleared in the same institution and used in numerous previous studies by other authors. [As a result] the period of data collection was pushed back to a time when many students were unavailable through being off campus or on holiday,” the authors said.

They claimed it was difficult to conduct research in institutions which “now see themselves as corporations” because publicity about student sex workers could “not only harm their public image but affect their income from prospective ‘customers’.” The authors said the figures could represent a “conservative estimate” because of the absence of phone-sex workers in the sample.

“While there may always have been some incidental student presence in the industry… there can be little doubt that the growing impoverishment of the student population has [coincided] with a growth in the number of student sex workers,” they added.

Dr Ron Roberts, of Kingston University, the study’s lead author, said too little was being done to help students tempted into sex work. “Everybody knows this goes on,” he said.

“They are just burying their heads in the sand. It is a student welfare issue. Anyone with an ounce of common sense can see that.”