Underfunded and increasingly corporatised, Australian universities are evermore concerned with money over education. Indeed, the title of vice-chancellor might easily be renamed “chief fundraiser”. Hosting the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation thus represents a sizeable cash splash, and it’s no wonder that universities have been quick to pounce, even after the Australian National University (ANU) rejected the centre over concerns of academic autonomy.
Yet no university has genuinely secured a deal with the centre. While the University of Wollongong and the centre have signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU), the process has been marred by secrecy, widespread criticism, and the resignation of visiting fellow Sarah Keenan in protest against it.
Further, the decision to fast-track approval may eventuate in legal action following the National Tertiary Education Union’s (NTEU) decision to take the uni to court in a bid to thwart the deal. So if the Ramsay Centre is willing to give millions to cash-strapped universities across the country, why is it floundering?
Ramsay is suffering a legitimacy crisis on two fronts — within universities and within the empire itself. On campuses, staff and students have put universities on the back foot. At the University of Sydney, 15 departments within the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (where the degree would be hosted) have come out against the degree. In contrast, only 26 people (11 of them anonymous, and including academics from overseas) have signed on to the “Scholars for Western Civ” in support of Ramsay.
The university has made (superficial) concessions seeking to rename the centre’s degree to “Western Tradition”, as well as paying lip service to concerns of academic autonomy, outlined in the MoU to the centre back in October. However, even this might be too much for the centre as, seven months on, all has been quiet on the Western front, and students and staff are cautiously optimistic.
At the University of Queensland (UQ) students and staff have also been successful. The UQ student union, the NTEU and the Humanities Board of Studies have rejected the course.
UQ’s student union also organised the first general meeting of students since 1971, which attracted almost 500 students — a remarkable feat in the context of voluntary student unionism. Reportedly only eight students voted “yes” to the university accepting a deal with the Ramsay Centre. The meeting was seen as a resounding achievement.
Meanwhile, internal divisions have characterised Ramsay, first publicly realised after board member Tony Abbott’s comment that the centre was “not about Western civilisation, but indeed in favour of it”. The centre was quick to distance itself from Abbott’s comments, seeking to frame him as a renegade, rather than a representative.
For all the political critiques of Abbott, he is consistently forthright. His comments seem to encapsulate the underpinnings of the Ramsay program — unconcerned with academic rigour and critical thinking, instead presenting a narrow, propagandistic understanding of Western civilisation.
Abbott’s comments seemingly caused the centre to pause and reflect, as they appointed more educators, attempting to distance themselves from the right of the culture wars with which it has become associated.
However, a minor board change couldn’t alter the foundations. The 2019 Ramsay “distinguished speakers” program includes Rod Dreher, who has argued that “everything [the Christchurch shooter] identifies as qualities of a disintegrating Western civilisation is true” and Rachel Fulton Brown, who runs a fan blog dedicated to Milo Yiannopoulos — a man who has solicited the advice of neo-Nazis and endorsed paedophilia.
Additionally, Ramsay has received chilling support from the Australian alt-right, including The Unshackled, a media platform known for interviewing a smorgasbord of the local far-right (Cottrell, Erikson, Anning) and The Dingoes, a far-right group linked to the neo-Nazi infiltration of the Young Nationals last year.
This is largely unsurprising given the alt-right’s own binary construction of “the West and the rest” and Western supremacy being foundational to the movement. Moreover, the right — from mainstream conservatives to the far right — share a scepticism of universities; running a privately funded Western civilisation course through universities would represent, in part, a hostile takeover of the public education system.
A few days ago, tensions between the Ramsay Foundation (which funds the centre) and the centre reportedly reached a boiling point with a potential split in the works following concerns over the culture war, and whether spending hundreds of millions on a small number of students is a good use of Paul Ramsay’s money, especially considering the centre never even featured in his will.
Ultimately, even if money prevails over student and staff democracy, it cannot buy legitimacy. Students interested in the humanities with 95+ ATARs would surely rather undertake arts or law degrees that offer them a critical education, superior employment opportunities and a degree not tainted by controversy and the support of the alt-right.
Disclosure: In 2018, Lara Sonnenschein was the education officer at the USyd Students’ Representative Council and co-founded Keep Ramsay Out of USyd, the student wing of the anti-Ramsay campaign on campus.