Plea to keep Otago textiles centre

A prominent textile scientist is questioning a University of Otago proposal to close its textiles centre, saying it plays a unique industry role. Next week, the university council will consider a final recommendation to close the Centre for Materials Science and Technology.

Dr Garth Carnaby, of Canterbury, a former Wool Research Organisation managing director, said the centre was the only one of its type in New Zealand. Merino-wear was an example of New Zealand product development that needed the support of an academic centre.‘‘The textile section of the economy is still a very big sector.

"They’re used everywhere by people today and in the foreseeable future because they make our lives more comfortable. We consume a huge volume of them in New Zealand.

"If each Kiwi consumed $1000 worth of textiles a year, it means we’re talking about a $4billion activity," he  said.

Dr Carnaby said a lack of New Zealand-based textile manufacturing meant there was a relatively small industry to support domestic research and teaching. But if it closed, New Zealand would have no centre to support its remaining industry.

"[The centre] provides professional training in textile science ... how it’s manufactured, and a whole lot of associated professional skills in fashion, retailing, consumer science."

Dr Carnaby said while it was "not for me" to tell the university what to do, he lodged a submission emphasising the centre’s value.

"I’m not saying Otago needs to provide the service, but you’d think we would want graduates that can make a living in that sector because it’s quite a significant part of our economy.

"If it’s not going to be Otago, will it pop up somewhere else?"

In a statement, the university said the centre had a financial shortfall and had not attracted enough students.

"The prospect of growth of student numbers to a feasible level in the short to medium term is unlikely.

"The centre’s income is substantially less than its cost, and consequently there is  an annual deficit of several hundred thousand dollars," the statement said.

The centre was established only last year, in March 2016, after the disestablishment of the department of applied sciences. Existing students would be able to complete their studies.

"Wherever possible, we will continue to offer students an unchanged programme of study for 2018."

The centre had 29.4 full-time equivalent students, and 10.76 full-time equivalent staff. Some of the staff would be offered redeployment.

A paper presented to a recent meeting of the university senate, obtained by the Otago Daily Times, acknowledged closure could "lead to some lost capability in fibres and textiles science, both across the university and in New Zealand".

The proposed closure date was December 2018, but the "teach-out phase" would last until 2019.

"The financial position of the university and the [science] division has become more serious [since the centre opened]. Pressure has come on the university surplus due to significant infrastructure investment required simply to ensure university buildings are safe and fit for purpose," the paper said.

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