Students would be willing to pay more income tax if it meant an end to tuition fees and the return of maintenance grants, according to a survey.
The Virgin Student Insight Poll found that 58 per cent of students favoured paying extra tax in return for the restoration of grants and scrapping of fees.
But the poll warns that many graduates might never enjoy the extra earning power brought by a university degree as large numbers fail to secure meaningful, long-term employment.
The finding sits uncomfortably with the government's insistence that graduates earn about £400,000 more than non-graduates over a lifetime. The figure is used by the government to justify the principle that students must pay for their higher education.
Mandy Telford, president of the National Union of Students, which opposes a graduate tax, said: "Not all graduates go on to earn the thousands of pounds that ministers would have us believe they do. The fortunate ones that are rewarded with a good salary pay back the cost of a university education many times over through tax."
The poll of more than 1,000 students said that one in eight new graduates in 2002 had already got a job. It found that 38 per cent of those said the job was "not ideal" and 31 per cent thought their degree had no relevance to their work. Sixty-nine per cent of those without jobs said they would definitely consider bar work and more than half said they would work as a checkout assistant.
Peter Boyd, managing director of Virgin Student, said: "There is a real concern that where students do not get their ideal job straight away, they are forced to take whatever job they can quickly to start paying off their debts.
"But this can force them into a cycle of low-paid, menial work that they may find hard to get out of."