Severe financial hardship for students, distress: report

Winter heating in a cold Dunedin flat consists of a stack of four blankets for 19-year-old Taine Mason.

The University of Otago student said his weekly cost of living loan went up to the required distance; the heat pump was used “once per blue moon” due to electricity costs.

This experience is far from unique, says a popular survey of student wellbeing released yesterday.

Two-thirds of students regularly don’t have enough money to buy food, clothes, pay bills, get health care or other basics, according to the survey.

The survey is based on responses from 4,593 tertiary students surveyed nationwide, including 623 from the University of Otago.

“There is significant financial hardship and distress for students caused by a mismatch between student income and the cost of living,” the survey report said.

“Student difficulties and distress can lead to poorer outcomes in higher education.”

Disabled, Maori and Pasifika students were most likely to struggle, according to the report.

People living in shared accommodation spent an average of 56% of their weekly income on rent.

Mr Mason said the rent for the Castle St flat where he lived was $195 a week and the cost of electricity, food, Wi-Fi and gas was rising.

Studylink cost of living loans allow students to borrow up to $281.96 per week.

“It’s not much to be honest, especially if you don’t get help from your parents.”

The government gives some students a living allowance, but this is based on their parents’ income.

“Some people don’t get help from their parents, but they can’t qualify for student allowance. I don’t think that’s fair.”

Although they struggled with the basics, he and his housemates sometimes prioritized booze, he said.

“We could spend our money on better things, but it’s not like we have much anyway.”

Without the stress of living on a small amount of created money, he believed he would be able to achieve more academically.

Keita Elliot also said that she and her roommates were struggling financially.

Rent was nearly $200 a week, before electricity, internet, and food costs were covered.

“There isn’t much left after you pay the rent,” the 19-year-old said.

“It’s easier not to go to the doctor or anything, just because it’s like an extra price.”

Making do with cost-of-living loans, she was tempted to give up and start working, but she didn’t want to waste the work she had invested in her studies so far.

The survey found that one in six students said their shared apartment didn’t meet their needs but they couldn’t afford to move to a better apartment with higher rent.

Two-thirds of students report not being able to pay for transport or vehicle costs.

Sixty-nine percent of students also reported a decline in their mental wellbeing during the Covid-19 pandemic, and some said it affected their studies.

Several recommendations were made as part of the inquiry, including opening up student allowances to all and increasing the student allowance to match the cost of living.

President of the University of Otago Students’ Association, Melissa Lama, said she was grateful the report formalized long-standing concerns.

“The popular survey highlighted most of the common difficulties our students face here in Dunedin, especially financial hardship,” she said.

“We really need our people in power to hear these concerns and respond with tangible action.”

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