Birkbeck’s Kiwi flagship sinks

University says Centre for New Zealand Studies is unsustainable, despite £100,000 donation from NZ Government last year. Melanie Newman reports

September 4, 2009

The flagship Centre for New Zealand Studies (CNZS) at Birkbeck, University of London, is to close, despite the intervention of John Key, the Prime Minister of New Zealand.

Birkbeck said that the centre had failed to raise sufficient endowment money to be sustainable. The decision to close it came after a spokesman for Mr Key told Radio New Zealand that the country’s High Commission in London was seeking a “high-level meeting” with the university. In late August, the commission said it understood that Birkbeck was simply restructuring the CNZS. Campaigners against the closure say that the college has breached an agreement that it will support the centre until 2011.

The centre, which holds thousands of books, journals and DVDs on New Zealand in its research catalogue and offers Maori-language classes, was set up by the University of London in February 2007. In 2008, the New Zealand Government awarded it more than £100,000. Since then it has attracted four PhD students and 2,000 visitors and researchers. It has published five books plus an annual journal.

Birkbeck’s 2009-10 postgraduate prospectus describes the CNZS as “a unique research base with vast resources”.

But a Birkbeck spokeswoman said it was set up on a pilot basis with seed money aimed at securing longer-term external funding.

“From the outset, Birkbeck made it clear that it would be unable to provide funding for the centre from its own existing resources,” she said. “The memorandum of understanding to support the centre specified that it would raise endowment funding to secure its long-term future. Unfortunately, the centre has not been able to raise such an endowment, and Birkbeck has confirmed that it is not in a position itself to make a long-term financial commitment to it.”

She added that Sir Graeme Davies, vice-chancellor of the University of London, was seeking, along with Birkbeck, to meet the New Zealand High Commissioner in London, to discuss how New Zealand studies can continue in the UK, “although supported differently”.

But Paul Burns, spokesman and co-founder of the Friends of the Centre for New Zealand Studies, a group set up to protest against the closure, said Birkbeck had breached the memorandum of understanding, under which it undertook to support the project until 2011. He said the CNZS was successful and financially viable, and that the university had refused to provide figures proving it was unsustainable.

On August, Belinda Brown, Deputy High Commissioner, wrote to Mr Burns to say she was seeking “urgent clarification” from Birkbeck as to its intentions for the centre’s future.

“Our understanding is that the college intends to review the possibilities for a new academic structure, as such fulfilling a more multidisciplinary role,” she writes.

“This would not be contrary to the letter or the spirit of the memorandum of understanding, and, in fact, potentially represents an opportunity to broaden the academic and cultural offerings relating to New Zealand.”

On 1 September, Birkbeck said it was “stepping back from involvement with the centre”.

Mr Burns said: “It beggars belief that we have such different messages over the last five days from Birkbeck and a representative of the New Zealand Government.”

The CNZS’ director, Ian Conrich, who was on secondment from Roehampton University and is chair of the New Zealand Studies Association (NZSA), has been asked to close the centre down.

The NZSA will also close and Birkbeck is making arrangements for the centre’s PhD students to continue their studies elsewhere.

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