In what has been condemned as a postcode lottery of support, universities have revealed their "discretionary funding" allocation from the Students Award Agency for Scotland (SAAS) had dropped. It comes after last year's record demand for financial help saw several universities run out of the emergency cash.
Aberdeen, Abertay, Caledonian, Edinburgh, Heriot-Watt, Queen Margaret, Stirling and St Andrews universities all received less discretionary hardship funding, which is allocated to students most in financial difficulty.
Abertay, in Dundee, said it had received the lowest amount for hardship funds from the SAAS since 2004, despite receiving the second highest number of applications for help.
In 2008 to 2009, Abertay received 203,626 compared with 203,247 this year; Edinburgh University saw its allocation drop from 1,259,483 to 1,012,842; and St Andrews saw a drop from 322,710 to 289,614 this year. Of ten higher education institutions that answered a Freedom of Information request made by Labour MSP Claire Baker, only two had received a minimal rise.
Less has also been made available for childcare funds at many higher education institutions. Aberdeen has received the lowest childcare funding since the fund's creation in 2005-6. It received 121,084 this year, compared with 132,314 last year.
Ms Baker described the lower allocations as "worrying" given last year's soaring demand.
She said: "Universities are therefore being forced to be very prudent with hardship and childcare funds and vulnerable students are suffering. These figures clearly show that there is a postcode lottery in the amount of support students are getting."
She urged education secretary Michael Russell to look at the issue urgently. Student leaders said the figures showed the entire funding system needed to be overhauled.
The National Union of Students in Scotland is running a campaign for a minimum income guarantee, made up of loans and grants totalling 7,000, to keep students above the poverty line.
Liam Burns, president of NUS Scotland, said: "We have seen financial hardship and levels of credit card debt go through the roof for Scottish students over the last few years.
"Far too many are now reliant on hardship funds when what we need is a student support system that properly funds students, so that they can concentrate on their studies without financial worries."
Last year the Scottish Government made an extra 2 million available for childcare funds from this autumn. However, Mr Burns said student parents needed better organised support in the long term.
A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: "Funding for student support has increased by over 9 per cent on last year to a record 79m. Of this, 8.6m was allocated to childcare funds and over 6m to discretionary funds – both up over 3 per cent on last year."