Police are investigating the theft of a brief case containing private information on almost 500 research staff from tertiary institutions, including more than 140 staff from the University of Otago.
The Tertiary Education Commission (TEC) confirmed the briefcase, which contained evidence portfolios submitted by academic staff as part of the Performance-based Research Fund (PBRF) health round, was taken from a coffee shop on the AUT University campus in Auckland on Wednesday.
The briefcase also contained information about 24 Otago Polytechnic staff.
"TEC is treating this matter very seriously and every effort is being made to recover the briefcase and its contents.
"We understand the sensitivity of this information for the academic staff concerned and regret that this has happened," TEC deputy chief executive Dr Colin Webb said.
The briefcase was owned by a panellist on the TEC-convened panel to assess research portfolios submitted in health-related subject areas. The panel was meeting at AUT University's conference venue.
Police were immediately informed along with AUT security and an investigation was launched.
"TEC has contacted the Privacy Commissioner, tertiary education organisations and their individual staff members who may be affected by this possible privacy breach," Dr Webb said.
Otago University research and enterprise deputy vice-chancellor Prof Richard Blaikie said the university was informed about the potential privacy breach yesterday morning.
"After the TEC alerted the university to this regrettable occurrence we swiftly acted to inform our affected staff. As this matter is under police investigation, we will not be commenting further," he said.
Otago Polytechnic director of communications Mike Waddell said it was taking the situation "very seriously" and had a briefing with affected staff yesterday.
"We are unclear ... about what it means for the PBRF round ... and we really have just got to wait and see what the outcome might be," he said
Universities New Zealand chairman Prof Pat Walsh said the breach was of "great concern".
"We would urge the individual involved to immediately return what was stolen and not to misuse or disclose the information," Prof Walsh said.