An increasing number of students are considering prostitution to fund their education amid soaring costs, an NUS officer has warned.
In an interview with BBC Radio 5, NUS national women's officer Estelle Hart said that increased living costs, higher fees and cuts to the education maintenance allowance (EMA) are driving students to the streets to pay for their studies.
"Students are taking more dangerous measures," she told an interviewer. "In an economic climate where there are very few jobs, people are taking more work in the informal economy, such as sex work."
The English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP) said the number of calls they had received from students had "at least doubled," particularly after the government's announcement of the future tuition fee increase.
"They [ministers] know the cuts they're making are driving women into things like sex work. It's a survival strategy so we would hold the government responsible for that.
A spokeswoman from the ECP, which is currently pressurising to decriminalise prostitution, said many students only enter the sex trade as a last resort but added it was "not surprising" there had been an increase.
"Students are not only turning to prostitution," she told The Huffington Post, "They are also engaging in phone sex and taking up lap dancing because they are in such a dire financial situation.
"In one case we dealt with, a group of students had set up a flat and were running their business from there. They rang us as they had been raided by the police and had no-one to turn to."
According to the NUS, students are also turning to gambling and offering themselves for medical experiments so they can pay their way through education.
Rhian, a student at Swansea University, travelled to Mexico last year to take part in a medical drugs test, for which she was paid in excess of £1,000.
"We were trialling diarrhoea tablets so there wasn't really a huge risk although there were a few hiccups with the accommodation," she told The Huffington Post.
"It was an easy way to get hold of a lot of money - which I desperately needed to pay for my rent. I'd never consider prostitution though, no matter how hard-up I was", she added. "It's not safe and it would definitely ruin any future career prospects."
A Department for Education spokesman said the government was targeting £180 million a year in financial support to "the most vulnerable 16 to 19-year-olds to help them continue their studies".
"It is down to schools and colleges themselves to award bursaries to young people who need the most help. If students are really struggling financially, they need to speak directly to their tutors."
The NUS emphasised there were no concrete figures to support the claims, which were based on "anecdotal evidence". But it insisted it was confident there was a problem of students turning to prostitution.
A spokesman for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills said: "Under the current university funding system, no student has to pay in advance for tuition and there is a generous package of financial support to help with living costs in the form of loans and non-repayable grants.
"Our reforms will make the system even fairer, with more financial support and lower monthly repayments once you are in well-paid work."
There have been previous concerns of students turning to "informal work" after John Specht, vice-president of Spearmint Rhino, was accused of encouraging cash-strapped students to enter the stripping industry.
Beyond the Streets is a charity helping people escape prostitution and assisting them in finding alternatives. Mark Wakeling, director of the organisation, said the claims raised an "important issue that funding cuts may push people into prostitution".
"Some may claim that prostitution is a quick and easy way to make quick money. The emotional, psychological and physical impact on women’s lives however cannot be overlooked", he said.
"It is dangerous to think that it’s a solution to difficulties in paying tuition fees or living costs whilst at university."