ANU pulls out of new Ramsay Centre degree in Western Civilisation
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ANU pulls out of new Ramsay Centre degree in Western Civilisation

The Australian National University has pulled out of negotiations with the John Howard-headed Ramsay Centre to set up a controversial degree in Western civilisation.

The university pulled out over concerns about the degree of autonomy it would have over the course, which academics feared was designed to push one narrow view of history, with the centre having too much influence over what was taught.

ANU Vice-Chancellor Brian Schmidt.

ANU Vice-Chancellor Brian Schmidt.

Photo: Lukas Coch

Vice-Chancellor Brian Schmidt told staff on Friday he had "taken the difficult decision" that day to withdraw from contention for the program.

"We approached the opportunity offered by the Ramsay Centre in a positive and open spirit, but it is clear that the autonomy with which this university needs to approve and endorse a new program of study is not compatible with a sponsored program of the type sought," he said.

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The opportunity had been attractive, allowing the university to boost teaching and research in the humanities and social sciences and offer generous scholarships for students.

But while negotiations were confidential, the university approached all partnerships and funding offers with the same principles, Prof Schmidt said.

"These include retaining, without compromise, our academic integrity, and autonomy and freedom, and ensuring that any program has academic merit consistent with our status as one of the world's great universities."

The Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation, which includes Tony Abbott and Kim Beazley on the board chaired by former prime minister Howard, was set up last year with a bequest from healthcare magnate Paul Ramsay to promote Western civilisation. It called for interest from universities in a degree course in Western civilisation and began negotiations with the ANU in December. The bachelor degree course was to start at the beginning of next year, 2019 with 12 staff, funded externally.

The university had already acknowledged the risks to academic independence that come from taking money from outside sources, and was trying to negotiate a legal agreement to address academic freedom and integrity.

The National Tertiary Education Union welcomed the ANU's decision. Branch President Matthew King said the centre had insisted on "unprecedented interference in curriculum and staffing", but the ANU had stood up for the academic principles and autonomy which made it great.

"This decision makes clear that no matter the financial or political pressure powerful interests bring to bear, public universities are not and ought not to be for sale," he said.

An article by Mr Abbott in Quadrant in April heightened concerns about the Ramsay Centre's intentions, when Mr Abbott criticised an education system that no longer immersed students in the New Testament, Shakespeare and British history, but rather wanted "every element of the curriculum ... pervaded by Asian, indigenous and sustainability perspectives".

"Almost entirely absent from the contemporary educational mindset was any sense that cultures might not all be equal and that truth might not be entirely relative," Mr Abbott wrote.

The Ramsay Centre was "not merely about Western civilisation but in favour of it", he declared.

Academics at the ANU were worried that Ramsay Centre staff might try to exclude some people and political theories from the degree.

But the Institute of Public Affairs decried the decision as "a terrible indictment on the state of our universities".

It reflected the fact that "the post-modernist ideology of identity politics trumps the study of Western civilisation", the director of the institute's foundations of Western civilisation program, Dr Bella d'Abrera, said.

"Australians have once again been shown that there is a strong, anti-Western civilisation current that runs through our universities, and in particular through our humanities departments ...

"Students will not being given the opportunity to learn about and understand the essential features of our free society which they have inherited from Western civilisation. This is unforgivable."

Kirsten Lawson

Kirsten Lawson is news director at The Canberra Times

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