Diversity Editors Eliza Huston & Elanor Leman visited talks last night about a potential Ramsay School Unit being established at UWA. This is their experience and reporting from the talk. 

Context

Established in 2017, in light of a sizeable donation by the late businessman and philanthropist Paul Ramsay. The centre, which in its short existence has not been without significant controversy, has been rejected by all Australian universities with the exception of the University of Wollongong and the University of Queensland. Its nominal objective is 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.” Australian National University was initially “very interested” in being apart of the Ramsay Centre’s ambitions, but following troubled negotiations walked away from the deal over concerns of the organisation’s “extraordinarily prescriptive micro-management,” which was “against the autonomy of the university.”

 

The Ramsay Centre has been championed by former Australian Prime Ministers John Howard and Tony Abbott, who both serve as members of the Board of Directors (Howard being the Chairman). The Centre has come under intense criticism, having been accused of holding an ideological bias, and for being “designed to further specific political agendas.” Whilst already receiving a sceptical reception upon its objectives becoming public knowledge, matters were made worse after Abbott published an article for Quadrant, titled “Paul Ramsay’s Vision for Australia,” which stated that, “the key to understanding the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation is that it’s not merely about Western civilisation but in favour of it” [italics original].

 

While the Ramsay Centre seeks to implement a Bachelor of Arts style degree in Western Civilisation and scholarships in collaboration with a number of Australian universities, St George’s College at UWA has been in talks with the organisation on the prospect of a jointly-run summer school. Although St George’s is free to run the program independently, Ian Hardy, a former merchant banker, teacher, and the current Warden of St. George’s College, is eager to explore the potential for wider engagement with the University.

The Meeting

Though no formal plans have been laid regarding any form of collaborative project with the Ramsay Centre, a meeting was held on Tuesday the 2nd of July to gauge staff opinions on the idea. These authors attended this consultation, which was initiated by Hardy, and conducted with Ray Da Silva Rosa, of the UWA Academic Board.

 

There was an emphasis on the lack of concrete proposals thus far – but several key claims were made. Hardy explicitly stated that he didn’t intend to proceed with such a project without the university being involved. To that, Da Silva Rosa added that the university was very experienced in negotiating such collaborations, noting that the Academic Board would be the body to do so, and said “if it’s accepted, it’s completely on our terms.”

 

Many students would be unsurprised to hear that members of Socialist Alternative made a spirited appearance at the meeting, although university staff certainly matched them in their enthusiasm to be heard. Hardy lost the room to titters and argument at times, but was also accused by several audience members of rudeness and dominating the conversation; cutting people short, being frequently asked by speakers to let them finish, and visibly smirking and cutting especially whilst students attending the meeting spoke. “You’re reacting emotionally,” he retorted at one point – it was clear that there was a fair bit at stake for many in attendance.

Western civilisation

A number of stuff took issue with the cornerstone of the Ramsay Centre, the very concept of western civilisation. Reiterated throughout the meeting was “we already teach quite a lot of that,” “a lot of the stuff you’ve talked about is already offered,” and indeed, even Da Silva Rosa commented in his opening remarks that the university has a strong background in teaching various aspects of the subject.

 

One staff member added that “western civilisation is kind of a sloppy concept,” noting that the bounds of the concept were ill-defined. Regardless of where exactly these might be placed, there was some agreement between staff and Hardy that the topic is one of value and interest, as long as its “impacts and influences” (in Hardy’s words) were considered, and academic criticism was at the fore. Unfortunately, it is here that the crucial issue lies.

Academic freedom

The Ramsay Centre’s reputation was the principle objection of many staff. “Don’t you find it concerning?” was asked of Hardy. The room was rich with grievances such as “very obscure, very opaque,” “no commitment to academic autonomy,” “ideological strings attached,” “concerned and a little bit sceptical about the motivations” – and from a student, “I don’t think my education should be some billionaire’s moral alibi.” There were many apprehensions regarding the restrictions on academic freedom that the Ramsay Centre would implement, such as the ability to sit in on classes as raised at ANU, and the lack of transparency around these. The rejection of the organisation by many other universities, particularly ANU, was heavily cited.

 

Hardy maintained optimism that the Ramsay Centre, having been turned down by these universities on account of its conditions, might now be more open to a deal with greater flexibility, which UWA could take advantage of. However, staff raised further worries that once the Centre had a foot in the door, they might exert more pressures further down the line.

 

Additionally, there was concern about the level to which staff objections would be treated seriously – “I think many of us have trust issues,” as one staff member commented. However, adjacent to the issues of academic freedom, there was another, crucially interlinked problem on the table.

The University Funding Crisis

As Socialist Alternative was quick to raise, UWA (as well as other universities) has been sorely hurt by recent and not-so-recent government cuts to tertiary education funding. However, Da Silva Rosa and Hardy pointed out that this might well make the prospect of a donation from the Ramsay Centre all the more tempting. There seemed to be a consensus here – the university does need money, and it relies on donations, something Hardy highlighted with this article’s leading quotation. “I’ve got a business to run,” he repeated several times over the course of the meeting.

 

Da Silva Rosa expressed his opinion that diversity of funding ensures academic freedom; entirely government funding would cause a pro-government bias, and private funding was therefore a desirable thing. However, it was pointed out that even as the Liberal government slashed university funding, members of it such as John Howard and Tony Abbott then proceeded to, through their involvement in private organisations such as the Ramsay Centre, offer more insidious funding that pushed their own ideology.

 

It seemed that the general air in the room was that the staff present – admittedly a small portion of the total staff body of the university – were concerned first and foremost with prioritising academic freedom. The consensus, as gauged by these writers, was that extra funding, even if useful, would ideally be turned down if it came with unwelcome strings attached.

 

The meeting became increasingly sidetracked and disruptive towards its end. Despite the charged atmosphere, one of Da Silva Rosa’s closing remarks seemed to capture much of its essence; “there’s willingness, but with a lot of safeguards… what’s needed is much more transparency, much more input”. Talks with the Ramsay Centre are very likely to continue, with the eventual outcome far from clear.

Words by Eliza Huston & Elanor Leman