Ramsay Centre struggles to find backers

Former Prime Minister John Howard is on the board of the Ramsay Centre.

Vice-chancellor of Australian National University (ANU) Brian Schmidt released a long statement on June 5 explaining why the university had ended negotiations to partner with the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation. He said it was because the centre wanted “unprecedented influence” as part of the deal.

The Ramsay Centre is a think-tank and research centre, whose board includes former prime ministers John Howard and Tony Abbott. It was founded with a $3.3 billion bequest from healthcare magnate Paul Ramsay. The centre wants to fund “degrees in Western civilisation” at up to three universities, paying for academics, scholarships and capital works.

But its plans have been mired in controversy since negotiations with the ANU broke down.

After the centre approached the University of Sydney, more than 150 academics published an open letter on June 7 criticising the proposed degree for promoting “European supremacism”. They also objected and to its stated aim to create “a cadre of leaders … whose awareness and appreciation of their country’s Western heritage and values … would help guide their decision making in the future”.

“We belong to a multicultural and hybrid society in a world traversed by serious geopolitical and social animosities. Collaborating with the chauvinistic Western essentialism that the Ramsay Centre programme embodies would be a violation of our crucial role in promoting a society of diversity, inclusiveness, and mutual respect,” the letter said.

In NSW, the University of Sydney and the University of Western Sydney are the only two institutions still discussing a possible partnership. The centre is now looking for partners elsewhere, and the University of Queensland said it was watching the debate with interest.

After Abbott published an article in the right-wing publication Quadrant in April saying the Ramsay Centre was “not merely about Western civilisation, but in favour of it”, there was very little doubt that it is intended to be an ideological weapon for the most bigoted parts of the ruling class.

The funds used to set up the Ramsay Centre could have offset the $2.2 billion budget cuts to the education sector. There is plenty of cash to fund racist ideological nonsense, it seems, but not to fund important research and teaching.

The University of Sydney academics ask why Ramsay’s funds could not have gone towards existing humanities degrees, which have suffered the most in the federal tertiary education cuts. Classics, gender studies, normative philosophy and ancient languages have all been removed from university curriculums in favour of right-wing political science, “terrorism studies” and imperialist international relations.

Howard, Abbott and others in the Ramsay Centre should stop being racist servants of capitalism, and those still supporting the centre’s goals should reflect on the history of Western “civilisation”.

The reality is that the West has been deeply influenced by and benefited from the material forces and ideologies of non-Western societies. Our number system is Arabic. So too is the algebra we learn in school. The coffee we drink originated in Africa, and was delivered to us by Islamic peoples. For much of the history of humanity, India and China produced textiles and porcelains that were far superior to anything Europeans could manufacture. Much of the world had been discovered and mapped by non-European peoples.

Before it burnt down, the Library of Alexandria, the crowning jewel of scientific knowledge in the ancient world, was filled with scrolls detailing important astronomical and geometrical science from non-Hellenic people. While Europe suffered through the Dark Ages after the collapse of the Roman Empire, the Islamic world went through a scientific renaissance.

Instead of the already well-represented study of Western civilisation, why are we not funding the study of First Nations peoples, their languages and knowledge of astronomy and natural science, which are all of critical importance?