Graduates should find it easier to get degree-level jobs this year, with most enjoying salaries of more than £20,000 and some earning as much as Pounds 35,000 in their first year, a survey has found.
The number of vacancies for graduates is forecast to rise by nearly 12 per cent in 2004, compared with a drop of 6.5 per cent in 2002 and 3.5 per cent last year.
The survey of more than 200 employers by the Association of Graduate Recruiters found that the median graduate starting salary is expected to outstrip inflation, increasing by 3.9 per cent to £21,100.
Salaries for graduate recruits will range from about £15,000 to Pounds 35,000 a year. Three-quarters of graduate jobs will pay at least Pounds 20,000.
The AGR said the findings appeared to support the arguments of ministers in favour of top-up fees, as the upward trend in demand for graduates and the salaries paid to them continues.
Carl Gilleard, AGR chief executive, said the trend was expected to continue.
He said: "Overall, it's an encouraging sign that employers are still prepared to pay a good market rate for graduate-level jobs. It does to some extent support the government's argument that you get a good return on your investment in higher education."
More than half of employers questioned said they were planning to increase the number of graduate vacancies this year. The biggest increase in numbers is expected in transport, logistics, information technology, investment banking and the chemical and pharmaceutical industries.
Sharp rises are also expected in science, research and development, sales, marketing and consultancy. Vacancies are predicted to fall in just three sectors: insurance, construction and engineering.
The Northwest is forecast to see graduate vacancies increasing by up to a third, while 20 per cent growth is expected in the Southwest and East Anglia, and an increase of 8 per cent is predicted in London.
The buoyant outlook for the Northwest is helped in part by a rise in fast-track teaching positions and expansion of some of the region's largest firms.
The highest starting salaries in 2004 are being offered by investment banks, consulting firms, law firms, oil companies, commercial and retail banks and consumer goods companies.
While more than 40 per cent of employers surveyed said their salaries would remain at 2003 levels, more than a quarter plan to increase pay by twice the rate of inflation and one in eight expects to make increases of 10 per cent or more.
Salaries for new graduates are expected to rise in all regions of the UK except the Southeast, where pay levels are unlikely to rise above 2003 levels.