Eighty people gathered at Sydney University on May 23 for a forum “Ramsay and the new academic racism”, to hear speakers condemn the Ramsay Centre’s proposed Western Civilisation degree.
Chaired by Robert Boncardo (lecturer at Sydney University’s School of Languages and Cultures), the speakers included Layla Mkhayber (undergraduate student, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences), Dr Nesrine Basheer (Arabic Language and Cultures) and Jeff Sparrow (Guardian Australia columnist and author)
The Ramsay Centre is a right-wing think tank, established by the wealthy philanthropist Paul Ramsay. It is chaired by former Prime Minister John Howard and includes former Prime Minister Tony Abbott on the board of directors.
The Ramsay Centre has been offering universities money to teach degrees in Western Civilisation but it has not been very successful.
Concerted protests by staff and students have resulted in Australian National University rejecting the proposal. Sydney University, a year after the discussions began, has still not reached an agreement. Wollongong University is the only university to have accepted the offer, amid vibrant student and staff protests. One visiting fellow resigned and others are threatening to follow. The University of Queensland is still in discussion with the Ramsay board about potential partnership.
The Ramsay Centre’s offer to Wollongong includes 30 scholarship places — no HECS fees for students, maximum five years full-time — specifically employed academics, small seminar-tutorial classes sizes of no more than 8–10 students, a “Ramsay Lounge” and a return flight for one semester’s study overseas (no doubt to a Western country). The partnership is worth more than $50 million over eight years.
At the forum Basheer said the Ramsay Centre’s degree should be opposed because of its “underlying theme of the supremacy of white civilisation”.
Boncardo explained that Sydney University entered into discussion with the Ramsay Centre a year ago, but no agreement has been reached. He analysed the Centre’s degrees as “privileging Western civilisation and training a cadre of right-wing commentators, in a disturbing environment where Aboriginal, Asian and Arabic studies options on campus are being reduced and where alt-right ideology is flourishing.”
Mkhayber, a Lebanese woman from Western Sydney, said: “Racism is alive and well here. On my first day at university I was called a terrorist, the Islamic prayer room at university gets vandalised regularly, all the Arabic teachers are casual, there is no African studies on campus and the Ramsay Centre’s ‘Western civilisation’ degree will make this all worse.”
Sparrow argued the centre was a cultural troll that aims to develop right-wing ideologues. The Centre is trying to bypass democratic structures in universities by creating an elite curriculum and coursework.
He noted the University of Sydney has been ignoring a groundswell of opposition. Graduates of Ramsay Centre degrees would become Liberal staffers or right-wing research institute workers. “Fighting it is a battle to democratise the university curriculum,” he said.
Speakers noted that the election of the Scott Morrison government has emboldened the right-wing and the centre’s objectives may be easier to fulfil in the new environment. However, the campaign against the centre has been boosted with information that internal battles are raging over financial decisions.
The meeting resolved to continue the pressure on Sydney University management to refuse to partner with the Ramsay Centre. It urged people to get involved in the campaign via its Facebook page.