Turnbull to question ANU over Ramsay Centre back down as uni hits back
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Turnbull to question ANU over Ramsay Centre back down as uni hits back

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull will intervene in the ANU's decision to pull out of a controversial new degree in Western Civilisation, saying he wants to talk to the university's vice-chancellor about it directly.

On Thursday, Mr Turnbull became the latest Liberal politician to wade into the furore over the course, which was to be funded by the John Howard-headed Ramsay Centre.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull says he will speak to the ANU directly about its decision to pull out of a course.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull says he will speak to the ANU directly about its decision to pull out of a course.

Photo: Lisa ALexander

The Prime Minister said he was "very surprised" by the ANU's decision last week to end six months of negotiation with the centre and would be speaking to vice-chancellor Brian Schmidt personally "to get his account of it".

"I find it very hard to understand why that proposal from the Ramsay Foundation would not have been accepted with enthusiasm," Mr Turnbull said.

But Professor Schmidt has hit back at criticism, saying while the lucrative deal was attractive, the decision came down to protecting the university's academic freedom.

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Professor Schmidt told Fairfax Media on Thursday that the Ramsay Centre had "sought a level of influence over our curriculum and staffing that went beyond what any other donor has been granted, and was inconsistent with academic autonomy".

"This would set a precedent that would completely undermine the integrity of the university," he said, noting the ANU had declined donations before and "will again".

Long-standing concerns about the secretive negotiations came to a head last month when the National Tertiary Education Union wrote to the university warning of a potential backlash if the final deal was seen to compromise on the ANU's values or link the university to a "divisive cultural and political agenda".

Academics who spoke to Fairfax raised concerns the proposal could push one narrow view of history and give unprecedented control of the curriculum to an outside philanthropic organisation.

The proposed course is part of a $3 billion bequest from health care magnate Paul Ramsay to promote the study of liberal arts, an enticing offer, Professor Schmidt acknowledged, that would also give generous scholarships to students.

But he stressed the university already had a strong reputation for scholarship in the Western tradition, offering more than 150 courses - or 18 years worth of study - in the area.

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While the decision "had nothing to do with the subject matter", he said the ANU had a "fundamentally different vision" for the program than the Ramsay Centre and there was no chance of reaching a compromise.

The centre has maintained it upheld "the principles of academic autonomy" at all times during its discussions with the ANU, which was the first university to enter into negotiations on the degree after the centre put a call out to universities last year.

In correspondence released between the centre and Professor Schmidt, former prime minister Howard said the university's decision was at odds "with the tenor" of talks just two days earlier.

He also revealed the centre had recently agreed to let the university prepare a draft curriculum for "examination and response", in lieu of an earlier draft, believed to have been prepared by the centre, that was rejected by the ANU.

"The reality is that until a few weeks ago provisional agreement had been reached on the curriculum, and an approach to staff selection, both of which were subject to the final approval of university authorities," Mr Howard wrote.

"At all times the centre has sought to negotiate in good faith with the university and, although some differences of approach had emerged, I had thought...that a clear understanding existed about how to handle the issue in the coming weeks."

The course had been expected to launch in first semester next year but fears about its content spiked last month when former prime minister Tony Abbott, who also sits on the board of the centre along with Kim Beazley, wrote an article suggesting the board would wield influence over the curriculum and staff.

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

According to the ANU's website, decisions on the course's curriculum would have been made by a "partnership management committee" consisting of two academic staff from the centre and two university academics.

At Senate Estimates hearings this week, federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham accused the union and the ANU's two student associations, who all backed the university's decision, of stoking negativity about the Ramsay Centre's "significant bequest".

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He has also called on other universities to "resist politically correct objections" when considering the degree.

A spokeswoman for the University of Sydney confirmed the university was now in conversations with the Ramsay Centre about the possibility of running the degree.

Professor Schmidt has indicated the ANU remains open to approaches from all potential donors, including a second offer from the Ramsay Centre if the university's academic autonomy could be guranteed.

The Prime Minister's office has been contacted for comment.

Sherryn Groch

Sherryn Groch is a reporter for The Canberra Times, with a special interest in education and social affairs

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