Queensland union members reject ‘Western civilisation’ courses

Ramsay Centre proposal ‘crosses red lines’, says union

February 7, 2019
University of Queensland

The University of Queensland may accept controversial philanthropic funding to introduce new Western civilisation majors, despite an emphatic rejection of the idea by its union branch.

At a meeting on 6 February, Queensland members of the National Tertiary Education Union demanded that the university withdraw its expression of interest in establishing a partnership with the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation. The NTEU said a “packed” lecture theatre had overwhelmingly endorsed the resolution, with just one person voting against it.

The meeting rejected the Ramsay proposal on two grounds: that it violated university independence and autonomy, specifically in allowing a Ramsay Centre representative to sit on selection committees for Queensland staff, and that it was an “explicitly elitist venture which will disproportionately confer benefits on a small and privileged group of students”.

The Ramsay Centre has triggered bitter debate with its plans to bankroll “great books” courses with funding and scholarships worth millions of dollars. The University of Wollongong quietly reached terms with the centre late last year, after the Australian National University had called off its negotiations with Ramsay and University of Sydney staff had attacked a proposed partnership.

The NTEU’s Queensland branch president, Andrew Bonnell, seized on vice-chancellor Peter Høj’s insistence that academic independence was a “red-line” issue. “It’s difficult to defend that position when the expression of interest already crosses red lines,” Dr Bonnell said.

The university declined to respond to this claim, saying it had “chosen not to make public comment” during a consultation period “to allow staff to freely express their views”.

“The university has shared extensive information with staff and student representatives about the proposed Ramsay Centre partnership,” a spokeswoman said. “This engagement process is providing valuable feedback. The university’s leadership intends to carefully analyse this feedback once the consultation has concluded.”

Dr Bonnell said the Ramsay Centre’s “political project – trying to undermine critical analyses of the West in favour of an anti-intellectual celebration of Western civilisation” – was “impossible to defend in a modern university”.

“We already have excellent courses in the classics and the great books, and wonderful colleagues that teach them – it’s not about hating anything to do with the history of the West.”

The NTEU’s Queensland secretary, Michael McNally, said members were concerned for the reputation of their institution. “A private group with a stated political agenda cannot dictate what a public university has in its undergraduate curriculum by tying it to a whole pile of cash,” he said.

“It’s a shame that universities have become so desperate for funding, particularly in the humanities.”

The union meeting also demanded a published code of practice to govern all relationships between Queensland and external partners.

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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