The vice-chancellor facing fierce criticism and legal challenge over the hosting of a controversial Western civilisation course has insisted that he used “a bog-standard piece of machinery” to approve the programme.
The decision by Paul Wellings, the University of Wollongong head, to approve a course funded by the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation has prompted criticism that he bypassed the university’s academic senate by giving the programme the green light under a “fast-track” procedure. The National Tertiary Education Union has launched legal proceedings in the New South Wales Supreme Court in a bid to have the approval overturned.
Wollongong’s move came after the Australian National University’s high-profile decision to decline to host the course – with its leadership stating that the Ramsay Centre had sought a “controlling influence” on curriculum design and staff appointments. Other critics perceive a Western supremacist perspective in the vision for the courses, which the Ramsay Centre is aiming to introduce at other universities.
The Ramsay Centre’s board is chaired by former Liberal prime minister John Howard and also includes Tony Abbott, another former Liberal prime minister.
Professor Wellings told Times Higher Education that the course would boost the contemporary humanities in Australia. The Ramsay Centre has “philanthropic funding of A$50 million [£27 million]…and that would fund 10 new academics and fully fund 30 students a year on a five-year programme”, he said.
He said that some of the criticism was driven by antagonism “towards people who are conservative politicians, in the language of the United Kingdom. That’s a debate I don’t have much time for. That’s not a political statement on my part; it’s really saying we should celebrate diversity and the fact that we could get the largest donation to the humanities in the history of Australia at Wollongong.”
What about the suggestions that he bypassed the senate and contravened institutional and sector rules on establishing new courses?
“The truth is I didn’t,” said Professor Wellings. “There’s existing machinery called fast-track machinery, and that’s existed at Wollongong for 20 years. I’m the decision-maker on that, and it comes to me on a regular basis either to turn off courses or turn on courses…I think last year I used it on eight occasions.”
He added that it was “actually a bog-standard piece of machinery that was enacted”.
“The legal action I have to be careful on because that’s a matter in front of the courts now,” said Professor Wellings. “So I think that was disappointing. Because from the perspective of the university, we think we applied the policy as it’s writ. That’s a judgment that will be made at a later date by the court.”
Professor Wellings, a former vice-chancellor of Lancaster University, was speaking at THE’s Asia Universities Summit. He said the Ramsay Centre was “not involved in the curriculum”. On staff recruitment, the Ramsay Centre “won’t have a casting vote; they will just be another person in the room advising the university around the selection of candidates”, he said.
The universities of Sydney and Queensland are among the institutions considering hosting Ramsay-funded courses.