Explainer: What's The Go With The Ramsay Centre?
By Ellie Stephenson
The Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation and their proposed degree, a Bachelor of Western Civilisation, are controversial topics at universities around the country at the moment. The Centre has been negotiating with unis around the country trying to establish their degree, recently culminating in the University of Wollongong (UOW) overruling their own Academic Senate in order to push through the course. If you’re not up-to-date with the whole situation, here’s a primer on what’s going on.
What is the Bachelor of Western Civilisation Degree?
The degree is being proposed by the Ramsay Centre of Western Civilisation, a right-wing organisation which was established through a large bequest from late, conservative healthcare magnate Paul Ramsay. With John Howard chairing the Centre’s board, its goal is to establish a degree that is (in the words of board member Tony Abbott) “not merely about Western Civilisation but in favour of it”. The degree attempts to ‘revive’ the humanities in Australia by way of a liberal arts style course with a focus on classics and Great Books. The proposed course list is nothing special, essentially just offering arts subjects that could be found in any literature or philosophy programme at university with an ideological spin.
Why is it controversial?
The degree has been condemned for its colonial overtones, with critics seeing it as insufficiently critical of the concept of Western Civilisation and reinforcing notions of white supremacy in academia. Swapnik Sanagavarapu, one of the convenors of the University of Sydney Autonomous Collective Against Racism, notes that “structures of colonialism have sustained ‘Western Civilisation’ but the proposed course structure for the Ramsay Centre makes no mention of them”. He also argued that after “centuries of academic discourse proceeding from the assumption of Western superiority (e.g. phrenology, orientalism, anthropology), it’s hard to see Ramsay’s reassertion of ‘Western values’ as anything but repackaged white supremacy.”
Academics have also expressed hostility towards the degree. Georgina Clarsen, the NTEU branch president at UOW, has described it as “highly ideological, highly suspect”, with other staff at UOW describing negotiations with the Centre as “reckless” and expressing concern for the lack of respect negotiations displayed to Indigenous communities in the Illawarra. The NTEU at USyd passed a motion suggesting that Ramsay threatened notions of “academic integrity, diversity, inclusiveness and social progress” and appeared to oppose existing academic critique of Western society. These concerns about academic integrity and the ethics of the degree mean that university administrations eager for donations come into conflict with activists and academics.
The Ramsay Centre, despite its conservative bent, isn’t automatically supported by right-leaning students either. Former University of Sydney Liberal Club Vice President Sweeney Hughes told me: “if you really care about Western Civilisation, you should study corporate finance”. With this in mind, it seems the Ramsay Centre, while ideologically unpalatable to many, also simply fails to sell its degree even to politically sympathetic students.
What happened at UOW?
The University of Wollongong has been the process of negotiating a deal with the Ramsay Centre.The university council fast-tracked the approval of the Bachelor of Western Civilisation, which meant that, unusually, the academic senate was not consulted. The typical process for approval requires courses to be voted on by the senate, which includes staff representatives. UOW Chancellor Jillian Broadbent justified the departure from normal procedures by arguing that it was necessary to guarantee the degree could be offered next year.
Unsurprisingly, this move has angered staff at UoW, who resent the lack of consultation in management’s approach. This comes following the NTEU announcing it would attempt to stop the degree in the NSW Supreme Court, based on the perceived departure from due process. The university argues that although it is an unusual move, it is both technically allowed and in the institution’s best interest. Regardless, it seems like it will be an ongoing challenge for UOW to receive staff goodwill.
What about other unis?
Apart from its negotiations with UOW, the Ramsay centre has also tried its luck with several other university administrations. Last year, negotiations for a deal with the Australian National University (ANU) broke down after it decided the conditions proposed by the Ramsay Centre were overly prescriptive, containing provisions to allow the Centre to supervise teaching and exercise veto power over curriculum and hiring choices.
It has also entered negotiations with the University of Queensland, where UQ staff expressed major concerns about academic freedom as well as whether the ideological bent of the degree conflicts with the university’s Reconciliation Action plan, which is aimed towards “increasing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander participation and success in higher education through culturally inclusive environments and practices.” In May, students at UQ voted to oppose the Ramsay Centre’s degree at a general meeting with over 500 students in attendance. Despite the Humanities and Social Sciences Board of Studies rejecting the degree multiple times, the Executive Dean of the faculty referred it to the UQ Board which approved it. This approval brings it a step closer to implementation, although it must be approved by UQ’s Senate.
Meanwhile at USyd, despite student and staff objections, the University has drafted a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the centre. Approval of the degree currently rests with the Academic Senate, although updates on the progress of the degree have not recently been forthcoming. It is unclear how Ramsay’s deal with another NSW university will impact negotiations with USyd, but it is very clear that opposition to the course will continue.