Students who go on to become academics should have their undergraduate debt written off, the Association of University Teachers said this week.
The AUT says that a national incentive scheme is needed to win recruits to academe and raise the profile of academic careers.
The union makes the call in its submission to Sir Alan Langlands' Gateways to the Professions review, which is considering how the public sector and the professions can improve recruitment opportunities for graduates.
The need to take action becomes more acute every year as fewer young people enter the profession - particularly in the fields of chemistry, maths and physics, the union says.
It says that the number of new entrants to academe aged 24 or under, who are former UK students, fell by 30 per cent between 1995-96 and 2002-03, while numbers of those aged 25 to 29 dropped by 9 per cent.
"The reasons for this shift are unclear, but the data do not yet fully cover the cohort of graduates who have had to pay upfront tuition fees," the union says. "We can therefore only speculate about the likely impact of increasing student debt, especially for tuition fees, on entrants to the profession from 2003 onwards."
A scheme will need to be more than a gimmick to get graduates to choose to stay on for postgraduate study and then enter academe, the union says. Any scheme also needs to start as soon as possible.
The AUT says that a "fee write-off scheme" will best meet these criteria.
It will mean that a graduate's tuition-fee debt of £9,000 is dismissed at the rate of £3,000 a year over three years.
"This is simple to understand, should be easy to operate, is similar to schemes covering other public-sector professions and is a prime example of a something-for-something approach to public policy," the AUT states.
But the union's submission says the existing £9,000 "golden hello" scheme for lecturing staff in six shortage areas - education, computing, business, mathematics, engineering and clinical medicine - is merely a "sticking plaster" solution.
The submission is at www.aut.org.uk.