An urban myth that was reported as fact has led to worldwide stories that prostitution is rife among students in Leeds.
James Cemmell, education officer at Leeds University Union, was quoted by a BBC investigation into students' involvement in the sex industry as saying that 60 per cent of the city's sex workers were students.
The figure - which was said in the report to be evidence from local groups that help prostitutes - was purely anecdotal. Student union leaders said they did not know the statistic's origin.
But the damage had already been done. The world's media had picked up the figure. The US-based Chronicle of Higher Education reported on its website that "vice authorities in the Leeds area estimate that 60 per cent of the city's sex workers are university students". New York-based University Business Daily repeated the 60 per cent figure.
Ruth Clarke, communications officer at Leeds University Union, told The THES the story was based on an urban myth. "We want to get across to parents that no student should need to resort to prostitution." A few students had got involved in the sex industry, she said, but "for every student who has taken such drastic action, there are hundreds stacking shelves to get through university."
A statement from the University of Leeds said: "We are appalled by the currency given to these wild allegations. If this is a cynical piece of media manipulation by those who run sex businesses to recruit students, then it is in the worst possible taste.
"No student at the University of Leeds needs take this kind of work to support themselves through their study; we have over £1 million in funds to help any who are facing financial difficulty."
The British Council said the stories should not harm recruitment of overseas students.