Greater numbers of students in England are turning to prostitution to fund their education, the National Union of Students (NUS) claims.
The NUS also says students are turning to gambling and taking part in medical experiments to fund their studies.
It says increased living costs and fees, and cuts to the education maintenance allowance, play a part.
But the government says it offers students a “generous package” of financial support.
Speaking to BBC Radio 5 live’s Breakfast programme, Estelle Hart, the NUS’s national women’s officer, said government cuts had put more pressure on students.
“Students are taking more dangerous measures,” said Ms Hart.
“In an economic climate where there are very few jobs, where student support has been massively cut, people are taking more work in the informal economy, such as sex work.
“It’s all dangerous unregulated work, simply so people can stay in education.”
The English Collective of Prostitutes, which runs a helpline from its base in London, said the number of calls it receives from students had at least doubled in the past year.
Sarah Walker from the organisation has seen a steady increase in calls from students over the past 10 years, but said her group had received an unprecedented number of calls since the government’s announcement that universities in England could charge tuition fees of up to £9,000 a year from 2012.
“They [ministers] know that the cuts they’re making are driving women into things like sex work. It’s a survival strategy so we would hold the government responsible for that.”
It is not just university students who are turning to the adult industry to pay for their education.
Eighteen-year-old Clare – not her real name – turned to escorting during her A-levels when she found out her education maintenance allowance (EMA) was in danger of being cut.
“I couldn’t go to college without EMA. My travel costs are £70 a month, without it I don’t know what I’d have done. I didn’t know who I could go to in college, and I didn’t want to rely on my family.”
“I began looking for jobs, but the hours were unsociable. A lot of my friends have gone on to shop work, and have ended up leaving college. I didn’t want that to be me.”
“I had a friend who’d been trying to get me to join his escort agency since I was 16. He was telling me stories about how much I could earn, how the hours would fit around me, that I could control who I saw, when I saw them and how often.
“It just sounded more desirable. I couldn’t see any other option.”
Clare, who has now left the adult industry to continue her studies, warns against working in the sex industry.
“I did this so I could go to college, go to university, for it to have a positive effect on the rest of my life.
“But I’m a different person to how I was when I started out. I’ve lost a lot of my confidence and I’ve lost trust in a lot of people.
“There are people you can talk to about it, and bursaries you can get. Find out all you can before taking such a large step, because I didn’t.”
A spokesman for the Department for Education said: “We are targeting £180m a year financial support at the most vulnerable 16- to 19-year-olds to help them continue their studies – with transitional funding for the students who were getting the top rate of EMA and part way through their studies.
“It is down to schools and colleges themselves to award bursaries to young people who need the most help. If students are really struggling financially, they need to speak directly to their tutors.”
The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills says the new reforms in higher education funding will make the system fairer, and students will receive more financial support and have lower monthly repayments.
The NUS also told BBC 5 live Breakfast it estimated about 20% of women working in lap dancing clubs were students.
Research from the University of Kingston published last year found that the number of university students who knew someone who had worked in the sex industry to fund their studies had gone up from 3% to 25% in 10 years.
Dr Ron Roberts, senior lecturer in psychology, led the survey of several hundred university students, which also found that 16% would consider working in the sex industry.
He described the results as “worrying”.