A significant rise in job vacancies for graduates, coupled with continuing growth in starting salaries, supports the government's arguments for introducing top-up fees, according to the Association of Graduate Recruiters.
The number of graduate vacancies has increased by 7.9 per cent this year compared with the same time last year, while starting salaries have risen 2.5 per cent overall, the AGR's biannual recruitment survey has found.
The median salary for a new graduate recruit is £20,000. High-flying graduates entering jobs in the financial services industry are being offered up to £35,000.
The AGR, which represents mostly larger companies, pointed out that this compared favourably with the national average salary of £17,000.
Carl Gilleard, AGR chief executive, said: "The graduate recruitment market is beginning to strengthen again after a year of uncertainty in 2002."
But he added: "The modest salary increases predicted by the survey for 2003 show that recruiters no longer feel the need to pay the ever-escalating salaries packages that have been such a feature of the recent graduate recruitment market.
"Nevertheless, the survey findings will offer succour to the education secretary, Charles Clarke, in justifying the proposed increases in students' contributions to the getting of a degree."
Graduates entering an investment bank or fund management firm can command starting salaries of up to £35,000, while those starting out in consulting and law can get about £28,000.
Media companies are significantly less generous, offering a graduate recruit about £17,500. The worst paid graduate jobs reported were in transport, at about £16,000.
Salaries for new graduates are set to rise this year in all parts of the UK except London. The strongest growth is expected in the Midlands (up 8 per cent), which has also seen the biggest increase in vacancies (an 18 per cent rise).
Although graduate recruitment in London is virtually static, the capital still accounts for nearly half of all graduate positions reported in the survey.
Nearly half the employers who responded to the survey said they were recruiting more graduates this year than in 2002, which saw a 6.5 per cent drop in vacancies on the previous year. Less than one-third said they were cutting back on graduate vacancies this year.
The biggest growth in graduate recruitment for 2003 is in telecommunications (up 61 per cent), IT (up 59 per cent), consulting and business services (up 36 per cent), and banking (up 36 per cent).
The largest drops are in media (down 42 per cent) and motor manufacturing (a 19 per cent decline).