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Comment

ANU and Ramsay Centre: Trading Academic Independence for Cash

ANU loves to brag about its scholarships. Its brochures are plastered with smiling shiny faces of Tuckwell scholarship students reading books on green grass under blue sky, with dust and heavy industrial equipment from the nearby construction site neatly cropped out. But ANU – the thought leader that it is – is changing away from this, as it quietly releases piecemeal information and timidly defends its negotiations with the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilization (RCWC) over a divisive new scholarship and degree originally slated for 2019.

Late last year ANU announced it was in negations with the RCWC to create a new Bachelor in Western Civilization for a cohort of 60 students, of which it would provide some 30 students with a $25,000 per annum scholarship. But this group doesn’t exactly have the same appeal as the kind-faced, generous Tuckwells, with their passion for education. No, RCWC is instead staffed by some of the most disliked politicians in Australian history and has repeatedly said it will use the degree to push its ideological beliefs.

RCWC launched in November 2017 thanks to a $3 billion donation left by healthcare-magnate and top Liberal party donor Paul Ramsay. The group aims  to get universities to teach a positive interpretation of Western civilization. To achieve this RCWC turned to ANU, promising a fortune to the university if they establish a degree that adheres to the group’s goals.

RCWC chairman and former prime minister John Howard described the degree as “an exercise in the unapologetic exposal of what Western Civilization has brought to mankind over the centuries.” There are three main issues with the degree: firstly, its politically biased approach; secondly, the ambiguity of RCWC’s control over the degree; finally, the involvement of sitting MPs and partisan political figures.

Members of RCWC board and its CEO have repeatedly said that the degree will only address the positive aspects of Western civilization. Board member Tony Abbott said that RCWC is “not merely about Western Civilization but in favour of it.” Even when Howard acknowledged that western civilisation had “its share of moral failures”, he didn’t elaborate. Instead, Howard said people should look to the successes of western civilization, such as the defeat of Nazi Germany. Of course, Howard did not explain why Nazi Germany – a European nation-State influenced by Enlightenment thought, Christianity and Graeco-Roman culture – was not part of the West. Nor have any of the board members mentioned colonisation, fascism, autocracy or imperialism; governmental structures that characterised the West for far longer than modern democracies. RCWC will not address these issues. They are explicitly narrow-minded and have no intention of approaching western civilization with the complexity it requires. Such an approach is not only an insult to students, but also to those affected by the negative aspects of western civilization. 

ANU and RCWC have both said they will respect the traditional course approval structures, but this hasn’t stopped RCWC officials from also saying the exact opposite. During negotiations, CEO Simon Haines said “we would not be wanting to hire somebody who is coming in with a long liturgy of what terrible damage western [civilization] had done to the world.” If academic integrity is respected, then a politically motivated third party should not get to have a say in the hiring and firing of staff. A similar stance has also been taken on the syllabus of the 16 new courses in the degree. RCWC said that they will choose the readings or “great texts” for the degree, while also saying that ANU will treat the courses like any other. These two things can’t be true at the same time. To drive home the strong arm tactics, Haines threatened to pull funding if the courses and teachers did not tow RCWC’s ideological line.

There is also the issue of RCWC’s board members also being sitting politicians. On the board, there are both former MPs – Howard and Beazley – and, more worryingly, current MPs. Liberal Party parliamentarians Leeser and Abbott sit on the RCWC board and have a deep involvement with the new degree. A sitting MP – particularly an ideologically divisive one, such as Abbott – having input on the curriculum of a public university is extremely unsettling and goes beyond a simple philanthropic donation. With all these issues you might have thought that justifications for ANU’s deal would be stronger.

The most common argument in favour of the degree is a version of: ‘well people can do Asian, studies major so why not a have a Bachelor in Western Civilization?’ The response to this is twofold. Firstly the Asian studies major is not funded by a group called the Xi Jinping Lord President for Life Appreciation Society. In fact, any whiff of political bias in any course is met with legitimate anger and concern. Courses at ANU are – or if the deal isn’t stopped, were – run by academics that have independent say over course material with the sole goal of educating students. As a result of this, the Asian studies major does not ignore negative aspects of said society or mislead their students to guarantee funding. Secondly, ANU already has a heavily Western-centric model for teaching the humanities – look no further than English, Ancient History and International Relations. And the best thing about these courses is that they don’t sell the education of their students to politicians for some extra cash.

This extra cash will also come with its own cost. RCWC is not a charity: they are not donating, they are buying. RCWC is trying to make their own degree and is paying the university to turn a blind eye to academic independence to do so. The world will see this and treat the ANU accordingly. Secondly, there are MPs on the RCWC board. If they really wanted to properly fund universities they could do it the old-fashioned democratic way, not with the vast wealth of a political partisan’s estate. Finally, we as students also pay ANU, under the presumption that we will be given the best education possible. At a Ramsay Centre forum Rae Frances, Dean of CASS, was asked what the threshold donation for someone to create their own degree would be, she tongue in cheek replied “$50 million.” Well, we – the students – provide ANU with hundreds of millions of dollars annually, and we don’t ask for a degree that mimics our personal political bias. We just ask for the university not to sell our education to the highest bidder.

Sam Brennan is an admin of the Facebook page ‘Keep Ramsay out of ANU’