Students are spending less on food so they can pay rising rents, a new survey has found.

The survey by the NZ Union of Students' Associations says average student spending on food has dropped from $98 to $73 a week since its last income and spending survey in 2014.

Average spending on accommodation has risen from $193 to $200, and in Auckland rental bond data shows that the average rent for a room in a three-bedroom house has jumped from $218 to $250 a week.

Student national president Jonathan Gee said students needed "urgent relief" to cope with the cost squeeze.

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"Students are saying that they're sick of having hunger and financial distress impact on education they already pay so much for," he said.

The survey has been done every two or three years since the mid-1980s, but respondents have dropped from 5000 in 2014 to 1000 in the latest survey, which was done by email in December.

Massey University's student union emailed it to all its students in 2014, including extramural students, but this time it has been restricted to fulltime students.

Possibly because of this change, the survey actually found reduced financial distress. Last time 44 per cent said they did not have enough money to afford their food, accommodation, clothing, recreational activities or financial commitments. This time that dropped to 33 per cent.

The fulltime students in the survey came from families that were wealthier and better educated than the New Zealand average, the report said. The proportion who attended private secondary schools (15.7 per cent) was three times the national average.

Two-thirds said their parents had degrees, up from 44 per cent in 2014. For comparison, only 18.6 per cent of all New Zealanders aged 45 to 55 - the predominant age group of students' parents - have tertiary qualifications.

"This suggests that access to tertiary education is generally self-replicating and may no longer be the social leveller it was once believed to be," the report says.

The report said the maximum student allowance plus accommodation benefit was $215.10 a week - less than the Auckland average room rental alone, without allowing for other living costs.

Parental income limits for student allowances had been tightened, so allowances had shrunk from 42 per cent of fulltime students in 2011 to 33 per cent in 2015.

Almost all (88 per cent) of the students had student loans. But the maximum loan for living costs had increased by only 90c a week since April 2014, to $176.86 a week.

Consequently 33 per cent said they received support from their parents - 22 per cent through regular payments averaging $57 a week, and 11 per cent through loans averaging $5000 a year.

Most also worked during the term, although those with regular term work had dropped from 90 per cent in 2007 to 63 per cent in 2014 and 60 per cent in the latest survey - perhaps because young people from poorer families had gradually dropped out, the report said.

On average, working students now worked for 13 hours a week, down slightly from 14 hours in 2014.