A degree is still considered a worthwhile investment
The average number of graduates chasing every job on offer this year has risen to 48 and graduate starting salaries have been frozen, a report says.
There were 25% fewer jobs available in the UK on the last recruitment round, the Association of Graduate Recruiters said after surveying 226 members.
This is far greater than the modest fall in vacancies of 5% predicted in the last AGR survey earlier this year.
The government said a degree was a good investment for a long future career.
The Association of Graduate Recruiters (AGR) surveys its members in 15 employment sectors across the UK twice annually, to compare the outlook for graduates.
The 226 graduate recruiters who responded for this survey said they intended to employ a total of 12,650 graduates in 2009.
The AGR said the only sector to report a rise in graduate opportunities was the small energy and utilities sector - which reported a 7.1% rise.
It said it had painted a "gloomy" picture because not only were there fewer jobs, but entry-level salaries had not risen and competition was increasing.
The average starting salary for a graduate was £25,000, with higher levels in London but lower starting salaries in Wales, at £21,000, and Northern Ireland, at £20,166.
AGR chief executive Carl Gilleard said: "We cannot hide from the fact that dramatic vacancy cuts will make the job search very tough for graduates both this year and probably next year too."
But he said graduates should be reassured that a degree was still a "valuable asset".
But some larger firms say their recruitment plans have been largely unaffected by the changed economic climate.
Sarah Shillingford, graduate recruitment partner for accountants Deloitte, said the firm had around 1,000 vacancies for this recruitment round.
"Our graduate intake hasn't changed significantly in the last few years.
"Whilst some of the major graduate employers are taking on a smaller number this year, it is not the case for all the big graduate employers.
"It's important to make that distinction.
"Many students run the risk of feeling deflated and defeated by the job market before they even start to look for jobs.
She added that preparing early by doing an internship or research into an employment area would stand students in good stead: "Good research will often suggest areas of work to graduates and undergraduates that they may otherwise not consider themselves suitable for."
Higher Education Minister David Lammy said the government was increasing the numbers of internships offered to 5,000, and it was providing more advice to graduates on the opportunities open to them.
"These are undoubtedly tough times but a degree is a strong investment which stands graduates in good stead for a long and successful career, giving them better prospects than those with lower qualifications," he said.
"Research shows that businesses are recruiting through the downturn with growth in some areas so graduates should remain positive about their long-term prospects."