A SIGNIFICANT gulf has opened up between the debts of students from Scotland and their counterparts in the rest of the UK.

A new survey shows the average student debt for graduates from Scottish universities is much lower than for those attending institutions in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The 2012 UK Graduate Careers Survey shows average student debt across the UK is £19,400, with the largest debts rising to £30,900 for students at London Imperial College.

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The figure has risen by almost 4% compared with the previous year, and is two-thirds more than in 2008.

The lowest student debts were at the four Scottish institutions that featured in the survey – St Andrews, Edinburgh, Strathclyde and Glasgow – with the total amount owed ranging from £10,000 to £15,700.

The report said part of the reason for the difference was the fact that many undergraduates in Scotland "opt to live at home for their studies" and do not pay tuition fees.

The debt divide is likely to grow even further over the next few years as a result of the different policies pursued by governments north and south of the Border.

In England, students are now expected to pay up to £9000 a year for courses, whereas education is still free for Scottish students studying in Scotland. The Scottish Government has also committed itself to ensuring that every student in full-time higher education, starting with those from the lowest incomes, has an income of at least £7000.

Robin Parker, president of NUS Scotland, which represents students, said: "Students in Scotland expect to graduate with far less debt, and this gap is likely to dramatically widen.

"However, for thousands of students in Scotland who must take on commercial debt and huge amounts of part-time work just to maintain their studies, this will provide little comfort.

"That's why we welcome the opportunity to work with the Scottish Government to create a minimum £7000 income guarantee, starting with the poorest students."

The 2012 UK Graduate Careers survey found expected graduate starting salaries had stalled at an average of £22,600, the same level recorded in 2011.

The anticipated salary five years after graduation is also unchanged at £39,900, but one-sixth of final year students believe they will earn £100,000 or more by the age of 30.

Other key findings from the research show significantly more final year students expect to enter the graduate job market than did so in either 2011, 2010 or 2009.

Application levels for graduate jobs are now at an all-time high – some 40% up on just two years ago – while the number of final year students planning to take time off or go travelling for a gap year has dropped to its lowest level ever.

Overall, student confidence in the graduate job market has dipped again, with an increased proportion of final year students describing the employment prospects for university-leavers as "limited".

The survey found that the majority of students were very positive about their time at university, their choice of institution and the course they had studied, but fewer were certain they had developed the right skills for employment or that being at university had prepared them for the working world.