University pays out $4m from hardship fund

More than $4million of hardship relief was granted to about 2500 students at the University of Otago last year as the pandemic created tough economic times for many.

As the implications of Covid-19 came into focus, the university decided to expand its hardship funding to support students facing undue financial pressure, university strategy, analytics and reporting director David Thomson said.

In April last year, outgoing vice-chancellor Harlene Hayne committed 20% of her salary over six months to start the new fund.

And by the end of the year, the fund included contributions from about 700 donors.

The bulk of the money came from the Government ($1.5million) and the university (about $2 million) but about $500,000 was donated by staff, students, alumni and others.

"We are delighted that the university has been able to support so many of its students throughout this difficult period and are grateful to current staff, supporters and alumni who have contributed to this fund," Mr Thomson said.

Over the course of the year, $4.1million was granted to 2592 students as 12.5% of the student body last year needed hardship relief.

Nearly nine out of ten students (88%) who applied for relief received a grant, Mr Thomson said.

The vast majority were in the $1000 to $2000 range, but grants as low as $150 and as high as $5000 were made.

Where appropriate, grants were also made to discount some or all of a student’s outstanding residential college fees, or provide doctoral scholarship extensions.

Unsurprisingly, students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds were considerably over-represented in those applying for and given support, he said, including high proportions of both Maori and Pacific students.

A headcount of recipients showed 505 (19%) were Maori and 406 (16%) had Pacific Island backgrounds.

Those were significant over-representations compared with the overall numbers of either group in the university’s student population, he said.

A small amount of funding went to the Otago University Students’ Association ($39,277) to top up its own student hardship fund and the Maori Centre ($10,800) to cover emergency grants it made.

While nobody could say what would have happened without the expanded hardship funding, there was anecdotal evidence it had helped.

Aside from international students, student retention through the year remained normal and pass rates had improved, he said.

And the biggest gains in pass rates were made by Maori and Pacific students, he said.

It was always planned that the new hardship funding would continue beyond 2020, as the effects of Covid-19 would also continue.

About $4million was planned in the university’s 2021 budget for the fund, which could be added to by ongoing fundraising, or a further round of government funding, he said.

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