UNSW used Singapore laws to stop FOI bid

Harriet Alexander
Sydney Morning Herald
29 Aug 07

THE University of NSW has used the secrecy laws of an authoritarian foreign regime to justify its decision not to release documents under freedom-of-information laws.

The university quoted the Official Secrets Act of Singapore in its refusal to release information about its failed UNSW Asia campus, which collapsed in June, stranding nearly 150 students and costing the university millions in compensation and lost revenue.

The university’s freedom-of-information officer refused to release correspondence between the vice-chancellor, Fred Hilmer, and Singapore’s Economic Development Board partly because it “may fall within the scope of the Official Secrets Act”, a draconian piece of legislation that has been used to prosecute journalists, government officials and economists.

“Section 5 of the OSA makes it clear that disclosure of communications entrusted by a person holding office under the government to any person other than the person that is entrusted in confidence or authorised by the person holding office under the government will be guilty of an offence,” the university’s letter to the Herald said.

“In effect, the Singapore [Official Secrets Act] reinforces that the communications between UNSW and the Singapore EDB are confidential material and release of that material would result in disclosure of confidential communications made between UNSW and the Singapore EDB.”

A spokeswoman said yesterday that the university was not relying on the Official Secrets Act in declining to release the documents, but indicating the degree of confidentiality the Singapore Government attached to them.

Reporters Without Borders ranks Singapore 146th out of 168 countries for media freedom.

The university was criticised for its decision to set up a campus in Singapore because of its harsh laws on public comment and dubious record on academic freedom. It replied at the time that the Singapore Government had assured it that academic freedom would be protected.

The university pulled out of its Singapore campus after just one semester, with the bill expected to climb into the tens of millions, including staff payouts, student compensation, contract termination penalties, lost revenue and legal claims.

The university had already spent $17.5 million when it decided to close UNSW Asia, but lost $15 million by not reaching expected enrollment numbers. It is wrangling with the Singapore Government over the liability for $13 million in grants.

The university has also refused access to documents about a sponsored academic chair, saying it contained commercially sensitive information it did not wish to reveal to its competitors.

The University of Sydney released an equivalent document in full.

But UNSW declined to release its agreement with the Neuroscience Institute of Schizophrenia and Allied Disorders for the establishment of a sponsored chair, citing the competitive market for private sector funding.

The Herald will appeal against the decisions

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