Cash-strapped Westcountry students are accepting thousands of pounds a month from rich, older men in return for companionship and, possibly, sex.
Growing numbers of young women at the region’s top university are flocking to “sugar daddy” dating agencies as they struggle to manage ever-rising levels of debt.
More than 100 students at the University of Exeter agreed to take “sponsor money” from wealthy “benefactors” in 2012, after joining controversial American website – seekingarrangement.com.
The 129 undergraduates at the university, which also has a campus in Cornwall, used the cash to cover the cost of tuition, books and living expenses.
A survey conducted by the website last year found approximately 80% of all the relationships involved sex. It claimed the average female university student who used it received £5,000 per month from their “benefactor”.
The Students’ Guild said it would “never encourage” students to fund studies by such methods, while the university advised students to be “cautious” before joining.
The website has released a list of the 20 British universities with the highest number of students who joined last year.
The University of Cambridge topped the list with 168 students, while Exeter was in 15th place.
A Guild spokesman said: “The Guild is of course concerned about our students and their financial situations and we would never encourage such methods to fund university. Students worrying about money should certainly come to the Advice Centre and talk to our trained and supportive staff, who can discuss options with them.”
Jim McKenzie, of Cornwall Citizens Advice Bureau, said: “This issue is indicative of the tough economic climate we’re living in. But I would question whether people are being forced into these agreements, or whether they are looking at them as a way of increasing their income.
“To deal with debt, you can either increase your income or decrease your expenditure. Although we would never tell someone to sell themselves, it is very difficult to decrease spending with rising utility bills and living costs.”
The website specifically targets university students by offering a free premium membership to users with a university email address, and then matches them with wealthy, older men.
Stephen Nunn, managing partner of Nunn Rickard, an Exeter-based criminal law specialist, said: “It is not illegal for a private individual to engage in selling themselves on the internet. It could make them a lot of money.
“But it is not particular attractive to parents if their children are supplementing meagre loans in this way. I’m sure they would be horrified.”
Faced with £9,000 annual tuition fees, increasing numbers of students nationwide are using such sites to form relationships with older men to help fund their studies.
Eight of the other top 20 universities using the website were based in London as it reported a 58% increase in all university students enrolling in 2012.
Simon Wright, deputy director of academic services at Exeter said: “We would advise our students to be cautious about entering into such arrangements. There are more conventional ways to find financial support – the Access to Learning fund can assist students, largely through non repayable grants. The University of Exeter also has a large number of scholarships and bursaries which are available to its students.”
Plymouth University did not make the top 20 fastest growing “Sugar Baby” universities in the UK.
A spokesperson said: “We have a duty of care to all of our students, and would advise them to exercise every care and attention when using the internet, especially when disclosing personal information or registering for a service. We were not previously aware of this site, nor of any of our students registering on it.”
Brandon Wade, founder of SeekingArrangement.com, said: “While some may argue that these women are just using men for their own personal gain, I believe that they are proactive in pursuing a higher education.”
The average salary of the site’s male subscribers is £170,000 a year. University students now comprise 44% of the site’s worldwide membership.