Sydney University staff and students ramp up opposition to proposed 'Western Civilisation' degree

A protest by Sydney University students against the proposed Ramsay Centre's western civilisation degree in September.

The fight to stop Sydney University management from agreeing to a new “Western Civilisation” degree, run by the conservative Ramsay Centre, is heating up.

As the university’s academic board met on October 1 to discuss its negotiations with the centre, activists from the Student Representative Council handed leaflets to staff highlighting their opposition.

The university has been holding talks with the Ramsay Centre since June, when it was revealed that the university had been offered a multimillion dollar sum to run the course.

The late conservative philanthropist Paul Ramsay set up the Ramsay Centre with a $3 billion bequest to “revive the liberal arts and humanities”.

It is chaired by former conservative prime minister John Howard and includes another former conservative PM, Tony Abbott, as a board member.

Abbott has been quoted as saying that the course is not merely “about” Western Civilisation, but “in favour” of it.

Academics are alarmed at the university’s move, citing damage to teaching integrity, autonomy and racism.

A National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) member who spoke at the board meeting said the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences “would be the most affected by the degree” as they would have to teach a curriculum designed to “present Western civilisation as superior to other cultures”.

A senior lecturer said he was concerned by the use of the term “civilisation”, describing it as a “curmudgeonly, crusty word” which came from a time of white racial hegemony and implied exclusivity.

He also questioned why the Ramsay Centre and the course was being organised by white men. “Aboriginal and transnational history is hidden, leaving us with a ‘good news’ view of Western Civilisation and history in this country.”

There was heated discussion around what the senior lecturer described as the Ramsay Centre’s “proliferation of a brand of politics which is noticeably right-wing” and the injustice of private institutions buying in to universities that have had their funding cut by the same people who sit on their boards.

The Ramsay Centre has sought expressions of interest from a number of universities, including the Australian National University, which rejected it in June after it found that the centre wanted veto power over the subjects taught.

It also wanted its academics to review subjects independently of the university, a move that led the ANU chancellor to end negotiations citing “irreconcilable differences on the governance of the proposed program”.