The Ramsay Centre is a private body wanting to establish “Western Civilisation” degrees at major universities. It has a huge fund of $3 billion left to it by private health magnate Paul Ramsay when he died.
Thanks to a staff and student campaign, the Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra has been forced to end talks with the centre. It had demanded an “effective veto” over course content and how it was taught, as well as influence over staff appointments, according to ANU Vice-Chancellor Brian Schmidt.
The back-down has created a political storm, with Malcolm Turnbull even coming out in its support, saying, “I find it very hard to understand why that proposal from the Ramsay Foundation would not have been accepted with enthusiasm”.
Sydney University is now, shamefully, in talks about establishing a course there.
The people on the Ramsay Centre board alone should make its agenda clear. They include Tony Abbott, who says its Western civilisation course is inspired by the Rhodes scholarship, created by a bequest to Oxford University by Cecil Rhodes to help create “a generation of men for the world’s fight”.
Rhodes was a firm supporter of British colonialism, growing rich from the exploitation of its African colonies, and helped begin the policies that led to South African apartheid.
John Howard, another board member, has tried to downplay the frontier wars and violent dispossession of Australia’s First Nations people.
Though the board directors, ridiculously, claim that “critical thought and enquiry” are exclusive achievements of the West, there will be no critical engagement with the history of Western civilisation through its courses.
The content of this course will be a dogmatic, uncritical celebration of the West.
Abbott himself has claimed that what is, “absent from the contemporary educational mindset is any sense that cultures might not all be equal.” In other words non-western cultures are not only less worth studying but are inherently inferior.
This is a form of racism which denigrates people from non-Western “cultures” rather than explicitly targeting them in terms of racial biology. But the result is the same.
Rhetoric about defending “Western Civilisation” has become a key way to promote Islamophobia in particular. It presents Islam as a threat to “our way of life”, “our values,” and the achievements of the West, lauded by the Ramsay Centre’s CEO Simon Haines as including, “representative democracy, pluralism, equality.”
But these were not simply invented by European ruling classes. They had to be wrenched from them through struggle. They did not exist for the black population in the colonies ruled by Cecil Rhodes. They were only won in South Africa by overthrowing Apartheid through mass struggle. There wasn’t even universal suffrage in England until it was torn from the hands of the ruling class by workers’ struggle in the early 20th Century.
And the racism at the heart of the Ramsay project isn’t just a historical white-wash; it has real consequences today. It is the same racist mythology that our ruling class has used to justify wars in the Middle East, imprison refugees, scapegoat minorities and continue the dispossession of First Nations people.
The implementation of the Ramsay Centre at Sydney University will only serve to justify these kinds of policies.
The far right is on the rise across the world—with fascist parties gaining ground in Europe, Trump waging a racist offensive in the US and our own government stooping to new lows in its treatment of refugees. Opposing racism is as important as ever.
The neo-liberal university
The fact that Sydney University Vice-Chancellor Michael Spence is even engaging in talks with Ramsay, despite the fact that ANU rejected them due to the centre asking for an “unprecedented” level of influence over the course, is appalling.
Michael Spence’s justification for his talks with Ramsay is that money is on the table. But universities are only in need of money because of the Liberals’ savage attacks.
The Ramsay Centre promises scholarships, and well-resourced small classes, to students with university entrance scores above 97 who show what the centre considers “political leadership”.
Students pursuing studies in other areas, or as Abbott describes them those, “pervaded by Asian, indigenous and sustainability perspectives”, are left with less resources. Sydney University’s art school, Sydney College of the Arts (SCA), for example, was shrunk and moved to main campus in 2016.
Just as students fought to stop the closure of SCA and saved half the jobs, we must fight for universities to be fully publicly funded, and free. We must fight to make universities communities of learning, research, critical thinking, and a place to challenge hegemonic ideas and institutions. Billionaires and conservative politicians should not be able to buy influence over curriculum and staffing, in order to prop up their racism through shrouding it in appreciation for “western culture”.
By Jordi Pardoel