Lowering student numbers 'costs economy billions'
A drop of 30,000 students starting in higher education this year would cost the economy £6.6bn in the long term, according to a Million+ group study.
The study suggested university brought on average a 27% "earnings premium" above non-graduates with two A-levels - with higher gains for women than men.
A degree brings graduates an extra £115,000 over their working life, and a master's degree adds a further £59,000.
And for the Treasury there is a net gain of £94,000 per graduate, it says.
This represents a return of 10.8% for the Treasury on the cost of financing an undergraduate degree, the research, carried out by London Economics, indicates.
Although a recession brings scrutiny of whether it is worth going to university, the study says the value of higher education is greater in a tougher jobs market, offering greater protection against unemployment.
And despite the rise in student loans to cover higher tuition fees, there are still "very high rates of return".
Million+ chairman Patrick McGhee said going to university "remains a remarkably good bet".
A major study in the United States last week also examined the issue of the current value of going to university - and also found that despite worries about debt, a degree provided a strong advantage in the jobs market.
The Million+ study on UK universities calculates the value of a cohort of students entering higher education - and based on 2011-12 it says that "the total value of these qualifications to those new entrants stands at approximately £36bn in today's money terms".
The following year saw a record drop in applications - and although there have been no final figures published for students beginning courses in autumn 2012, the report says a "conservative estimate" of a drop of 30,000 students would mean a loss to the economy of £6.6bn.
There has also been concern about the recruitment of overseas students to UK universities - and the report highlights that the export value of higher education £8.8bn, of which approximately £7.6bn is "associated with foreign students coming to study in the UK".
Prof McGhee, who is also vice chancellor of the University of East London, said: "As well as opening up new opportunities for individuals, the Treasury reaps exceptionally high returns from its investment.
"If efforts to increase access to university are not sustained, these significant benefits could be eroded with longer term consequences for the economy as well as individuals."