I don’t know if you’ve been following the very odd goings on between the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation (aka The Muppets) and the Australian National University (ANU) but it has been quite bizarre and has brought into a clear focus the schism that exists between those who believe that they are born to rule and the rest of us, in this case the academic independence and autonomy of one of our foremost learning institutions is under threat.
The Ramsay Centre [for Western Civilisation] represents a foundation set up by Paul Ramsay, a wealthy entrepreneur who made his fortune building and operating private hospitals around the nation and who benefited substantially from successive coalition policies to subsidise private health insurance companies who inevitably direct patients to these and other private hospitals: Ramsay was also a golfing buddy of former PM John Howard.
“… to advance education by promoting studies and discussion associated with the establishment and development of western civilisation, including through establishing scholarship funds and educational courses in partnership with universities”.
So far, so good, some worthy aspirations there and nothing is more aspirational than a group of conservative white men who want to tell the rest of us how we should behave and who happen to be in charge of a three-billion-dollar bequest.
John Howard – well known for the political trifecta of losing his seat, losing the prime ministership and losing government in one hit – heads up the foundation as its chair and Tony Abbott features as one of its directors. Another director, Kim Beazley who was evidently there for balance, noted that:
“This is not a left or right think tank. The values of freedom, human rights and representative government have their origins in Western civilisation. Yet the historical, philosophical and cultural base of that tradition is of diminishing saliency in our academic institutions. It does not need dominance. It needs a systematic voice.”
I’m not sure what Kim was getting at as it clearly is a right-wing tank but whether it thinks or not is another matter and it really doesn’t matter anyhow as soon after he was appointed, the Ramsay Centre announced, “the Hon Kim Beazley AC resigned as a Director on 18 May 2018, following his appointment as Governor of Western Australia.”
That just left one token left-winger in the form of Joe De Bruyn who you may recall was a great supporter of John Howard in efforts to stop lesbians from having IVF babies and later strongly advocating the ‘NO’ case in the marriage equality debate. His standing in the Labor Party was always a bit wobbly and despite his union credentials, he infuriated many of his colleagues with his conservative views on social matters. He also provided Gough Whitlam with one of his more memorable one-liners: in a speech to a union gathering a few years ago, Whitlam described the Netherlands-born de Bruyn as “a Dutchman who hates dykes.”
Recently the Ramsay Centre entered into discussions with the ANU to fund by way of a bequest a Bachelor of Western Civilisation degree to commence next year. The course was to be an Australian version of the great-books courses taught at America’s leading liberal arts colleges. More than half the students were to be on scholarships based on the Tuckwell model that has now been operating at the ANU for some years. The Tuckwell Scholarship Program at the ANU is an undergraduate scholarship program whereby every year, twenty-five talented and motivated Year 12 students from across Australia are invited to take up a place at ANU.
Still looking good!
But then Tony Abbott let rip with one of the brain-farts for which he has become infamous and which, in the form of knighthoods for Princes and Dukes, characterised his forgettable tenure as our prime minister. In a nondescript article in the Right-wing journal Quadrant he noted, on the subject of this degree course on Western civilization, that the curriculum would be ‘for’ western civilization, implying that any critical analysis or comparative content would not be welcome.
He went on to say that:
“Teaching will be tutorial-based in the spirit of Oxford and Cambridge. A management committee including the Ramsay CEO and also its academic director will make staffing and curriculum decisions.”
And, didn’t the proverbial hit the fan with that one!
ANU vice-chancellor Brian Schmidt – a man who has contributed much to Western (and global) civilisation – evidently asked Howard to ‘walk back’ Abbott’s comments as they obviously compromised the negotiations taking place between ANU and Ramsay and attacked the very integrity and autonomy of the university: Howard declined to contradict Abbott, indicating that he too saw it as appropriate for the Ramsay Centre to assume the universities cherished role of making its own staffing and curriculum decisions.
There followed an unseemly jihad on Schmidt and the ANU with the Newscorp numpties at The Australian leading the charge. Their focus and the basis of their criticism seemed to be that the university should never look a gift horse in the mouth, just accept the money and abandon your integrity and principles. But the university are digging their heels in and insisting that it is they who will design, teach and deliver their own courses without the interference of external ideological groups: a bequest is after all a gift and it is tarnished and diminished if the giver places on it conditions for its use and application.
So, discussions between the ANU and Ramsay reached a stalemate and even the prime minister was called on to intervene and bring the ANU to heel and right on cue Senator for the IPA, James Paterson, demanded that the ANU be punished by having its funding cut – just like the ABC. He would say that, wouldn’t he, it’s in his IPA implanted DNA.
So far, the ANU and Vice Chancellor Schmidt have maintained a dignified and calm demeanour saying only that their priority for the university is its integrity as a respected international place of learning and its absolute insistence that it retain autonomy over its course curriculum and staffing. At no stage has the ANU, as has been suggested elsewhere, shown any reluctance to deliver an undergraduate course on Western civilisation, a tradition that itself was founded and thrives on the autonomy of these institutions of higher learning.
Let’s assume that the Ramsay model of course funding is the way of the future and gains acceptance in our universities. Could we then see a bequest from the likes of Pauline Hanson for the teaching of the Foundations of Conversational English or the Clive Palmer bequest for the Teaching of business principles and ethics with lecturers and curricula provided by these individuals?
It’s not as silly as it sounds!
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