The popular perception of students drowning in debt has been challenged by a Sodexho- Times Higher survey, which shows that a quarter of students expect to graduate debt-free.
More than 2,000 full-time students at 112 institutions were questioned for the second University Lifestyle Survey. Twenty-four per cent of respondents said they did not expect to graduate with debts.
This is a major change from 2004, when only 8 per cent of students said they would leave university debt-free.
Julian Nicholds, vice-president for education at the National Union of Students, said: "If this many students are anticipating no debt, they must be living on a pittance and working more than the recommended 20 hours a week."
Bill Rammell, the Higher Education Minister, said: "A growing number of students are managing their money carefully. Students under the new system can be further reassured that they have no fees to pay until they have finished studying and are earning more than £15,000."
But the survey shows that a large number of students still face intimidating levels of debt.
Thirty-nine per cent expect to leave owing more than £10,000. Of these, 15 per cent anticipate debts of more than £15,000.
Medics are most likely to struggle financially, with 19 per cent expecting to graduate with debts of more than £17,500. Business and management students are least likely to get into serious financial trouble - only 6 per cent expect debts of this level.
Students who live at home may miss out on much of the traditional university experience, but they are less likely to have heavy debts. The survey found that 47 per cent of such students expect to graduate owing less than £5,000.