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Students around New Zealand, increasingly struggling to make ends meet, have claimed almost $3.5 million in emergency financial assistance from the Ministry of Social Development during the past three years.
The number of special needs grants to tertiary students has increased by 58% during the past three years, while for Otago students figures have leapt 82%.
Figures released to the Otago Daily Times after an Official Information Act request show 8923 students nationwide received special needs grants from the Ministry of Social Development (MSD) service StudyLink during the financial year 2010-11.
StudyLink gave $1,405,443 in special needs grants to students in the last financial year - an average of about $157.50 per grant.
There were 5629 special needs grants made to students nationwide in 2008-09, before a change in policy helped contribute to a 40% rise to 7869 grants in 2009-10.
The change in policy and the increase in the numbers of grants saw spending climb from $858,904 to $1,155,676 between the two financial years, although the average grant amount remained similar.
New Zealand Union of Students' Associations president Pete Hodkinson said a rise in emergency financial assistance applications and special need grants showed how increasing costs were affecting students.
"What we are seeing . . . is the compounded effect of rising costs of living, student debt, tuition fee increases and higher student unemployment in times of economic recession - not an easy road for any student," Mr Hodkinson said.
An income and expenditure survey conducted by NZUSA last year showed the median total cost of weekly living expenses for full-time students increased by 6% from 2007 to 2010, while tuition fees climbed 13% in the same period, he said.
The rising number of grants being made also reflected a change in policy, which made it easier for students to apply for emergency financial assistance by phone, Mr Hodkinson said.
MSD deputy chief executive for students, seniors, and integrity services Mike Smith said StudyLink provides emergency assistance to students based on their individual circumstances.
The increase in special needs grants also reflected the increased numbers of students entering into tertiary education. Policy change had also resulted in an increase in the numbers of grants, he said.
Maximum limits for food grants had changed from $200 over a 26-week period, compared previously with the same amount for a 52-week period.
Students were able to receive more than one grant, since changes were made in September 2010, he said.
Budgeting guidelines were available to all emergency grant applicants, with people who received assistance on more than three occasions required to show they had taken "reasonable steps" to increase their income, reduce costs, and improve their financial management and budgeting abilities.
Students are not required to pay back special needs grants, a spokesman from the MSD said.
During the 2010-11 financial year, 487 special needs grants were made to University of Otago students with addresses in the Otago district, while there were 307 grants to Otago Polytechnic students, Mr Smith said.
There has been an 82% rise in special needs grants made to Otago tertiary students during the past three years, rising from 497 to 784 and then to 909 from 2008 to 2011.
The figures accounted for an increasing share from 8% to 10% of the nationwide number of special needs grants made to students.
Otago University Students Association (OUSA) 2011 welfare officer Shonelle Eastwood said the rising need for emergency financial assistance came as "no surprise".
OUSA's student support services had exceeded their budget last year after unprecedented demand on their foodbank, she said.
The figures reflected how many students were living week-to-week and struggling to pay their way, Ms Eastwood said.
Mr Hodkinson said students were increasingly struggling to find casual and part-time employment.
An NZUSA survey of students found about 65% were employed in regular or casual work during 2010, compared with about 90% in 2007.
About 58% of students who responded to the survey reported feeling stressed about their financial situations, Mr Hodkinson said.