Sydney Uni takes step forward in Ramsay discussions
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Sydney Uni takes step forward in Ramsay discussions

Sydney University has taken a step forward in its negotiations with the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation, with vice-chancellor Michael Spence asking senior academics for their views on draft terms of engagement before putting it to the academic board.

But Ramsay is also negotiating elsewhere, with chief executive Simon Haines saying the centre is in discussions with at least one more Group of Eight university.

Sydney began talking to the Ramsay Centre after the Australian National University pulled out of negotiations over a degree in Western civilisation funded by a bequest from late health magnate Paul Ramsay.

Simon Haines, CEO of Ramsay Centre, says it is in discussions with several universities over a degree in Western civilisation.

Simon Haines, CEO of Ramsay Centre, says it is in discussions with several universities over a degree in Western civilisation.

Photo: James Alcock

The ANU cited protection of academic independence as its reason for abandoning the proposed partnership, saying the Ramsay board - which includes former conservative prime ministers John Howard and Tony Abbott - wanted controlling influence and a veto over curriculum and staffing decisions.

Sydney University's decision to open talks with the centre has been criticised by more than 150 of the university's academics, who signed an open letter saying say any degree would be "European supremacism writ large".

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Dr Spence has defended his interest, saying the course - modelled on the Oxbridge system of small tutorials and rigorous debate - had the potential to be a remarkable opportunity for students.

University of Sydney vice-chancellor Michael Spence says a draft memorandum of understanding is being put together.

University of Sydney vice-chancellor Michael Spence says a draft memorandum of understanding is being put together.

He said a memorandum of understanding about the terms of negotiation would have to be drawn up and approved by the academic board before any further negotiations about the design of a possible degree began.

On Thursday, Dr Spence said the dean of arts was now discussing a draft MOU with colleagues. "Invitations have been extended to colleagues in the disciplines most closely associated with the potential program in Western civilisation," he said.

It would also be raised at the next arts and social sciences faculty board meeting.

"In both instances, the intention is to support discussion - both dialogic and deliberative - of the principles at the heart of the draft MOU in order to give me feedback prior to my next engagement with the Ramsay Centre," he said.

The MOU would not become public yet because "we may find that the loudest voices dominate and that we don't end up with as reflective or inclusive a conversation as we might otherwise have", Dr Spence said.

If approved, the MOU could be put to the next academic board meeting in early October.

Professor Haines said the centre was in discussions with several universities including "more than one" Group of Eight. The Go8 includes only one other NSW university - the University of NSW - which previously said it had not expressed interest.

The centre has enough money to fund the degree at two or three universities.

"We strongly support the principles of academic freedom and autonomy which are a bastion of Western civilisation," Professor Haines said.

But Nick Riemer, one of the academics that drafted the open letter opposing Ramsay, said Dr Spence should walk away.

"My view is now that the Ramsay Centre is so tainted that for the university to sign an agreement with it would mean that the university is prepared to give its academic legitimacy to support a highly conservative political agenda," he said.

It would also add legitimacy to activities the centre conducted outside the university, he said.