One in 20 students- more than 100,000 across the country- are turning to the sex trade to pay their way through university.
Jobs in prostitution, exotic dancing and stripping are being used by to help reduce debt while studying, according to new research.
Many are targeted on social media by groups looking for lap dancers, escorts and ‘cam girls’.
Students would keep their jobs secret from family and friends for fear of being judged while men were more likely to end up in the sex industry than women while at university, the Student Sex Work Project report also found.
Dr Tracey Sagar, who led the study, said: ‘We now have firm evidence that students are engaged in the sex industry across the UK.’
Nearly two thirds of those who were working in the sex trade said it was to fund a lifestyle and 56 per cent said it was to pay basic living costs.
Two in five said they had wanted to reduce debt at the end of their course.
But money was not the only motive, as three in five thought they would enjoy it, and just over half said they had been ‘curious’.
Dr Sagar said: ‘The majority of these students keep their occupations secret and this is because of social stigma and fears of being judged by family and friends.
‘And, we have to keep in mind that not all students engaged in the industry are safe or feel safe.’
The study, funded by the Big Lottery Fund, involved 6,750 students, of which 5 per cent of men and 3.5 per cent of women said they had worked in the sex industry.
Nearly 22 per cent of all students said they had considered doing so.
But up to a quarter of those who entered the sex trade reported they had found it difficult to leave, and the same proportion felt unsafe in their work.
A separate study found many students who ended up in the sex industry had been targeted on social media.
Freshers on Facebook and Twitter are increasingly being sent messages by groups looking for lap dancers, escorts and ‘cam girls’.
The adverts come as the average student debt rises to £44,000 following the introduction of £9,000 tuition fees in 2012.
Lap dancing can earn students between £50 and £800 per night, according to research by the University of Leeds. Escorts can earn thousands of pounds per week.
Saffron Gold is an escort agency near Manchester. It posted adverts in student groups including ‘Manchester and Salford University students’ and ‘University of Manchester – Freshers 2013/2014’ at the beginning of Freshers’ Week.
The agency, which has a profile picture reading ‘keep calm and book an escort’, described their roles as flexible and said it was looking for ‘attractive, charming ladies aged between 18 and 40 with good figures and great personalities’.
It added: ‘We are happy for ladies with different profiles to apply for our escort vacancies because all our clients are not the same and they have different needs and preferences.’
In an earlier advert Saffron Gold wrote it was looking for ‘new and experienced’ girls.
Twitter users in East Anglia were also targeted by an agency that sent dozens of messages urging students to join them.
Anglian Escorts followed thousands of students in 2012 in the hope they would see its recruitment adverts.
Its account was suspended – but it has since been reactivated and hundreds of messages are sent every day.
In one Tweet the agency wrote: ‘Looking to employ #escorts in East Anglia apply here! Premium escort agency.’
A report completed at the University of Leeds found that club managers also deliberately put flyers out in Freshers’ Week urging students to join.
It said: ‘A club manager in a northern city site explained how he always put flyers out at Freshers’ Week inviting female students to audition.’
London-based agency Haute Girls specifically advertises having students on its books.
It states on its website: ‘Faced with the options of poorly paid term time jobs and more lucrative escorting, a cash-strapped London student may turn to the later, especially when escorting gives them the extra time and flexibility to study.’
The life of an escort was made public by Dr Brooke Magnanti, 39, whose diary of her adventures was published anonymously under the pen name ‘Belle de Jour’.
Her blog told of her life as a struggling graduate in London and working as call girl to fund her studies.
Laura Watson, a spokesman for the English Collective of Prostitutes, said they mostly deal with female students on their hotlines.
She said: ‘From a student perspective there has definitely been an increase in calls to our helpline since loans were brought in.’
Academics at Swansea University will release a report on the extent of students turning to the sex industry next week.
Researchers at Swansea University have now called on universities to do more to support those involved, which could number into the tens of thousands across the UK student population.
‘It is vital now that universities arm themselves with knowledge to better understand student sex work issues and that university services are able to support students where support is needed,’ Dr Sagar, an associate professor of criminology at Swansea University, added.
‘Our research has not been about encouraging students into sex work it has been about supporting students who are in sex work. And this is the reality, students are engaged in sex work occupations – this is a fact. Another fact is that some of them need advice, support and sometimes assistance to step away from the industry.
‘At the moment students feel so stigmatised and judged that they are afraid or at least very reluctant to disclose their occupations to staff and services at universities that could help them. Stereotyping is also a problem.
‘Sex work is widely but wrongly perceived to be an occupation that is predominantly taken up by women and this means that males may fall through the student support net because they are not associated with sex work occupations.’
Many of the students who end up in the sex trade were targeted on social media by escort agencies offering highly paid work. DAILYMAIL