A leading academic has slammed Auckland University after it refused to release emails and documents related to the proposed Waikato medical school.
Universities are expected to act as the critic and conscience of society and must be open to public scrutiny, according to Otago University law professor Andrew Geddis
The university’s decision to charge media for emails is regrettable and appeared not to reflect a proper understanding of the Official Information Act, Geddis said.
In October, Waikato University and the Waikato District Health Board announced a bid to establish the country’s third medical school.
READ MORE: * Auckland University quotes $570 for med school emails * Waikato wants a medical school: university and health board put request to Government * Proposed Waikato med school faces challenge from Otago and Auckland
Months later, Otago and Auckland’s medical schools pitched a rival bid to create a national school of rural health.
In March, Stuff filed a revised Official Information Act request for all emails generated by Auckland University medical programme head Professor Warwick Bagg discussing the Waikato med school proposal.
Auckland University’s legal staff responded by saying the organisation wouldn’t release the relevant 202 emails unless $570 in costs was paid.
The university declined to waive the costs, arguing there was no compelling public interest in making the emails available that couldn’t be met by disclosing other material such as letters, reports and memos on the Waikato proposal.
Auckland University has since refused to release the additional material.
Stuff has also filed an Official Information Act request with Otago University for emails and reports discussing the Waikato med school proposal.
Otago University has since applied for a 10-day extension before it responds. They have not requested any payment.
Geddis said it would have taken Auckland a minimal amount of time to collate the 202 emails. Time spent deciding what information it will release cannot be charged for.
“In the absence of an explanation, it appears Auckland University is not applying the Ombudsman’s guidelines on OIA matters correctly,” Geddis said.
The guidelines are informed by a High Court interpretation of the act.
“The Official Information Act is one of the most important pieces of legislation that we have to keep those who exercise power transparent and accountable,” Geddis said.
“It’s used by academics, media, and individuals to find out how government and others exercise and use power.”
Imposing unnecessary charges had the effect of suppressing information because often those costs could not be met, Geddis said.
Universities are expected to act as the critic and conscience of society and therefore had to be open to public scrutiny, he said.
In April, a group of high-profile New Zealanders wrote an open letter warning freedom of speech was under threat in the country’s universities.
Several Auckland University academics signed the letter.
Meanwhile, the region’s mayors have endorsed the Waikato med school proposal saying there is a healthcare crisis in its communities.
The proposal was discussed at the Waikato Mayoral Forum,
Forum chairman Alan Livingston said the region’s mayors are aware of the adverse effect the shortage of GPs were having on rural and provincial areas.
The mayors called on the Government to approve the Waikato proposal with urgency.
Livingston said the healthcare workforce shortage is a crisis.
“Bay of Plenty and Gisborne leaders have also put their support behind the proposal which is heartening,” he said.
“When the Waikato has spoken with one voice and told the Government what its priorities are, such as the Waikato Expressway, we’ve had a lot of success. However, the support of the Bay of Plenty and Gisborne show that the rural and provincial sector across the country support this.
“I’m sure if you spoke to people in Southland and Invercargill, they would also see the benefit of producing more doctors that have an affinity with their communities.”