Young graduates fresh out of university will face stiffer competition for the best jobs from 2006 - just as top-up fees are introduced, recruiters have warned.
The Association of Graduate Recruiters fears that European legislation on age discrimination could lead major firms to scale down or radically alter graduate recruitment programmes.
Some of the biggest employers predict that the European Union's Anti-discrimination Framework Directive will compel them to offer more graduate jobs to older candidates, creating tougher competition for those of traditional university-leaving age.
The AGR said it was worried that the new law might discourage employers from running graduate training programmes, because the word "graduate" could be taken to imply a young person and expose them to the threat of legal action.
It is so concerned about the issue that it is planning to stage a conference in April for employers to consider the implications.
Carl Gilleard, AGR chief executive, said: "In the past, employers have said that their graduate training programmes are particularly successful when taking on people at the beginning of their working lives. They would not normally take on a 40-year-old graduate. We think it would be a tragedy if they were frightened off from continuing with these programmes. Even a drop of 5 per cent in the numbers recruited would be a significant loss."
Keith Dugdale, director of recruitment for accountants KPMG, said: "The age profile of those we take on will be wider, which means that those people straight out of university will face greater competition."
The implications of the legislation are being investigated by the Centre for Research into the Older Workforce at Surrey University.
In the meantime, pay prospects for graduates look good this summer with research pointing to an average salary of £21,997.
The figures from Graduate Prospects suggest that salaries for university-leavers this summer would range from £13,242 to £36,000. One in four graduates will receive more than £25,000.
One in seven vacancies is expected to be in London, although one in five jobs will be overseas, the majority being teaching English as a foreign language.
The authors of the research said there was a developing trend for graduates to take a "post-university gap year" - teaching abroad for 12 months while they considered their options.
Management consultancy will command the highest mean salary at £34,724, followed by the oil and mining industries at £26,474.