A shortage of qualified applicants had been a problem until recently
The jobs market for graduates is set to become much tougher, suggests a survey of leading employers.
A survey by High Fliers Research of 100 firms found recruitment targets had been cut by 17% for this year.
The economic downturn had particularly hit financial sector recruitment, with 47% fewer graduate entry-level jobs.
The report says "swingeing cuts" in recruitment, after years of a buoyant jobs market, make it one of the worst years to graduate for two decades.
"There is understandable panic on campus that this is shaping up to be one of the worst years of the last two decades to be graduating from university," says Martin Birchall, managing director of market research company, High Fliers Research.
Mr Birchall warns that more applications from university leavers will be chasing fewer jobs.
"Not only have vacancies been reduced substantially for those finishing university in 2009, but it is now clear that many of last year's entry-level jobs did not materialise either, leaving many graduates from the class of 2008 out of work too."
But the survey found a more positive message from the public sector, with graduate jobs increasing by 51% since 2007.
The warning that graduates will face a more difficult time in chasing jobs follows a sustained expansion in graduate employment - with a shortage of suitably-qualified applicants having recently been a bigger problem than a lack of vacancies.
Long-term changes in the economy have seen a growing demand for well-qualified staff, with a survey from the Association of Graduate Recruiters (AGR) in summer 2008 showing that graduate unemployment was at its lowest for five years.
CHANGE IN GRADUATE JOB VACANCIES
1991/92 was the last major recession which hit graduate recruitment hard
1999 saw an unusually dramatic fall in manufacturing
2002/03 the downturn was created by the dot.com collapse
That update from the AGR, based on a survey of major employers, showed that the graduate jobs market appeared to be "weathering the storm" of the credit crunch.
But this latest research claims that a corner has been turned and that economic uncertainty is now threatening the jobs market.
It claims that half of leading employers are lowering recruitment targets - and that compared with 2007 this will mean a 6.7% reduction in jobs available.
The research suggests that the biggest reductions in jobs will be in investment banking, retailing, accountancy and engineering.
Earlier this week, the government announced plans for university leavers struggling to find jobs, including three-month paid internships to help graduates gain work experience.
A spokesman for the Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills said: "We recognise that graduates are not immune from the effects of the economic downturn, which is why we are developing real help and support, talking to major employers about ensuring graduates get experience of work and a chance to show what they can do."