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University of Sydney seeks revisions to Western civilisation degree plan

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Ramsay Centre plans to spend AU$50 million to fund the Western civilisation programme for eight years.

Instead of funding an entirely new degree on Western civilisation for a small “elite” group of students, the University of Sydney has suggested that the Ramsay Centre use the money to help “hundreds more” with scholarship opportunities.

According to media reports last week, the university told the centre it could use the tens of millions it would have spent on the degree to fund scholarships and other opportunities for students in existing courses that already cover the subject matter.

Sydney vice-chancellor reportedly said in an email to staff last week that he wrote to the centre on Tuesday with the proposal, pointing out that the university already teaches scores of subjects in Western civilisation.

“Rather than focussing the funding on a small, select group of students, we think there is an opportunity to open up access to our teaching in these areas to hundreds more,” Dr Spence told staff, as reported by Times Higher Education

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For example, he proposed enhancing Sydney’s Bachelor of advanced studies course introduced last year with a new major in Western tradition. The major would include two core units “which would be ‘great books’ in methodological approach”.

Students would select five electives from some 160 courses offered by the university in areas such as arts, social sciences, science, architecture, design, planning and music. Some of these courses include “law, disorder and ideology in Rome”, “art in the age of Giotto”, “imagining Camelot”, “Australian Architecture” and “modernity in crisis”.

“We are proposing that the majority of funding be used for students in the form of scholarships, bursaries, study abroad opportunities and other related support costs,” Dr Spence said.

“These changes will allow us to support hundreds of students each year,” he added. “Over the life of the funding agreement, we believe that around 1,100 students could benefit.”

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Under its original proposal, the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation planned to spend something like AU$50 million across eight years on “great books” courses in Western history, philosophy, religion arts and culture for small groups of eight to 10 students at host universities.

The funds would go towards hiring academic staff to run the courses as well as for generous scholarships of up to AU$30,000 a year for a select group of some 30 students.

But the proposal was mired in controversy from the get-go. Students and staff across several Australian universities balked at the proposal, calling it elitist and colonial, as well as a threat to academic autonomy. 

According to THE, the Australian National University abandoned negotiations with the centre last year on concerns over the purported loss of academic independence. 

Continued tensions subsequently led the center’s parent foundation, the Paul Ramsay Foundation, to consider severing ties with the center and cutting off its access to billions of dollars worth of funds. The foundation currently holds the purse strings to the lion’s share of former healthcare magnate Paul Ramsay’s US$3.5 billion estate, which is where the Ramsay Centre gets is funding from.

In an ultimatum later, the foundation agreed it would fund the courses, provided the centre was able to convince three universities to becomes its hosts.

As the universities of Wollongong and Queensland have already agreed to the deal, University of Sydney’s commitment would seal it.

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According to THE, the Ramsay Centre has confirmed receiving Sydney’s proposal and says it will “give it due consideration”.

In an Op-Ed for Sydney Morning Herald, Salvatore Babones, an associate professor at the University of Sydney, suggested the entire endeavour to be an exercise in futility. 

The University of Wollongong’s Western civilisation degree, he pointed out, would be taught by temporary academics on eight-year contracts. Funding for the course at the University of Queensland, meanwhile, would only run out by 2027, unless it is renewed.

And while was nothing wrong with the University of Sydney’s spanner-in-the-works proposal, he said, it was not a particularly “inspiring” way of spending tens of millions of dollars. 

Against such a backdrop, the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation would be falling far short of its claim that its endowment represents ”an unprecedented world-scale opportunity to re-invigorate the humanities and liberal arts in Australia”. 

“Small beans is more like it,” he wrote.