Financial squeeze: Tertiary students go hungry as living costs outrun grants

Tertiary institutions are being forced to feed many of their students, with a new survey finding that one in six students at one Auckland institute are going without food regularly because they can’t afford it.

Unitec, the country’s biggest campus-based polytechnic with 9100 fulltime-equivalent students, is asking its staff to donate food and linen to help students struggling to pay rising rents and other living costs.

A survey answered by almost 2000 of its students has found that 17 per cent agree that they “regularly go without food or other necessities because I can’t afford them”.

Half of all students, including two-thirds of Maori students, said their income was not enough to cover their living costs at some stage in the past year.

“We have been very surprised by just how widespread significant hardship is across the student community,” said Unitec’s manager of student engagement Alison Dow.

“It’s a big wake-up call because it gives us a real sense of how our students are struggling.”

The student council started a soup kitchen at Unitec’s branch campus in Henderson last year and council president Matalena O’Mara hopes to feed students on the main Mt Albert campus this year.

“We will start the free lunches over the next month. The Mt Albert campus is huge, so we’ll have to look at different places to do it,” she said.

The council has also started a foodbank supported by food rescue charity KiwiHarvest, which delivers food near its use-by date to Unitec every Monday.

National student union president Jonathan Gee said the Unitec survey found even greater hardship than a national student survey in April.

“Some of the statistics are quite heartbreaking, particularly 68 per cent being worried about their financial situation, and 80 per cent of Maori. That’s much worse than we have seen in our survey,” he said.

Auckland University student president Will Matthews said his foodbank gave out 204 food parcels in the second half of last year, up dramatically from 218 in the whole of 2015.

Manukau Institute of Technology student support adviser Nicole Henry said Manukau students seeking support increased from 152 in 2015 to 183 last year.

“It’s definitely getting worse,” she said. “The student allowance they receive is really minimal, but the cost of housing and transport is rising.”

At Unitec, Maori and Pacific students were much more likely to say they regularly go without food and other necessities for financial reasons – 27 per cent of both Maori and Pacific students, compared with 13 per cent of other students.

Almost half (46 per cent) of the Maori students, 39 per cent of Pacific students and 26 per cent of other students said they had seriously considered quitting in the past year because of the struggle.

Dow said a majority of students seeking hardship help were mature-aged, “especially women with families”.

“They are really struggling because they can’t afford to work as much as they need to,” she said.

Almost half of Unitec’s students (45 per cent) are aged 25 or over, including people changing careers or returning to work after having children.

O’Mara, 39, gave up a job as health and safety manager for a scaffolding firm to retrain as a social worker, dropping from an income of $1000 a week to $240 – a student allowance (currently $212.45 a week for a single adult aged 24-plus) plus a part-time job.

“I was constantly tired and sleep-deprived so I could make money,” she said.

The student allowance is reduced by a dollar for every dollar earned above $214.30 a week.

The survey found that 57 per cent of students, including 77 per cent of Maori students and 73 per cent of Pacific students, are paying for their courses with student loans.

Thirty per cent are using their own money from work or savings, and only 13 per cent are getting money from their parents.

Other sources of money for courses (students could list more than one source) included private loans (10 per cent), scholarships (8.5 per cent), employers (4 per cent) and credit cards (2 per cent).

Three jobs pay for ‘fulltime’ study

Unitec film student Rosie Stanton works three part-time jobs so she can afford to study “fulltime”.

Stanton, 22, works about eight hours a week in each job – as a waitress, a film editor and a member of the Unitec Student Council.

“Uni expects you to focus completely on uni, but you can’t do that when you also have to work,” she said.

She doesn’t qualify for a student allowance because of her parents’ incomes, but neither parent actually supports her financially.

“My mum is already struggling to support herself, and my dad I don’t have a relationship with,” she said.

“That is true of a lot of students in my class. Some are lucky enough to live at home but they are still paying board.”

Instead, Stanton has paid for her courses with a student loan that is now over $40,000, and borrows the maximum of $178.81 a week for living costs.

But almost all of that goes on rent. She and her partner pay $170 a week each for a room in a $580-a-week house they share with two others in Massey.

She earns about a further $300 a week after tax from her three jobs combined. That gets swallowed up on food, petrol to get to Unitec, and petrol and parking costs for her film editing job.

Last year, before she moved in with her partner and when she had only one part-time job, she lived mainly on noodles.

“When I was living on noodles, you already have so much stress dealing with uni, the added stress of not having food makes it so much worse,” she said.

“I know a lot of people who fell behind in uni and can’t do it any more. Out of our class of about 30, six or seven have dropped out, and all of us have talked about it.

“I have gone without sanitary products and things like that. There was a student who couldn’t afford petrol to come in, so he started crashing on people’s couches that live closer to Unitec, but he was still paying rent where he lived.”

Stanton has also borrowed the maximum of $1000 a year for “course-related costs” – a maximum that has been frozen since student loans began in 1992.

“I have spent my course-related loan on the car,” she said.

“My textbooks cost $80 to $100, my course is the least textbook-heavy. My friend has to buy five textbooks a year, each for about $100, and a lot of camera students have to buy their own camera gear.”

How Unitec helps

• Study grants: up to $500 for fulltime domestic students facing unexpected costs.

• Hardship fund: Small one-off grants, petrol vouchers and Hop card top-ups also for unforeseen costs. Must have already asked Studylink or Work and Income, and work with Unitec’s budget adviser.

• Food parcels: Available at multiple kitchens around the campus.

Tertiary Education Minister Paul Goldsmith said New Zealand had one of the world’s most generous student support systems and the Government was committed to supporting students financially.

Student allowances provided grants for student from low-income families and those in financial need, while interest-free student loans enabled students to meet their share of study costs.

Allowances could include an additional accommodation top-up of up to $40 per week for students living away from home and students may be eligible for scholarships or additional assistance to meet urgent or unexpected essential costs.

“Students undertake tertiary education because they see the value in a qualification. Five years after graduation, bachelors graduates earn on average 40 per cent more than the national median income. While half of borrowers that stay in New Zealand after their study will complete repayment in less than six and a half years.

“The costs can seem daunting while studying, but the financial benefits after graduation are significant.”


Article originally published by NZ Herald.