What’s the story with Ramsay?

In December 2018, a partnership was announced between the Ramsay Centre and the University of Wollongong. The university would establish a degree in Western Civilisation funded by the centre.

An idyllic scene at the University of Wollongong

            The new degree was immediately controversial. In the previous months, there had been considerable publicity about proposed Ramsay-funded degrees in Western civilisation at the Australian National University and the University of Sydney. At both universities, many staff were opposed to the degrees. The ANU proposal did not go ahead, while the Sydney proposal was still being debated. Given this background, opposition to the degree at Wollongong was not surprising.

My aim here is to give a perspective on the controversy over the Ramsay-funded Western civilisation degree, especially as it has been played out at the University of Wollongong (UOW). I write as an academic at the university without a strong stake in the new degree, because I am retired and the issues involved do not impinge greatly on my main research areas. However, a number of my immediate colleagues have very strong views, and I have benefited from hearing their arguments, as well as the views of proponents of the degree.

            The next section gives a brief overview of the institutional context, which is useful for understanding both incentives and concerns associated with Ramsay funding. Following this is an introduction to the Ramsay Centre. Then I outline the major issues raised at the university: decision-making, the conservative connection, Western civilisation and equality of resourcing. The conclusion offers a few thoughts on the de-facto strategies of key players.

It would be possible to go into much greater depth. Relevant are issues concerning the aims of education, the funding of higher education, the impact of private funding and agendas, the question of Western civilisation and the role of political ideology. Others have more expertise on these and other issues, and I hope some of them will contribute to the discussion.

Background: the Australian university sector

Most Australian universities are funded by the federal government, but the funding environment has become increasingly challenging. In the 1980s, the government introduced tuition fees based on government zero-interest loans paid back as part of income tax only when a student’s income reached a moderate level. Introducing these fees provided universities a sizeable income stream, but not a bonanza, because the government cut its direct funding, while opening the gates to a massive expansion in student numbers over the following decades.

            The result was that academics were met with ever-increasing class sizes. The student-staff ratio dramatically increased, almost doubling in some fields. However, this wasn’t enough to fix the financial squeeze. University managements dealt with it in two main ways.

Students in the Hope Theatre at UOW

            Firstly, they aggressively recruited international students, who had to pay substantial tuition fees. International student fees were used to cross-subsidise other operations. Eventually, this income became Australia’s third largest export industry, after iron and coal.

            Secondly, teaching was increasingly carried out by “casual” staff, paid by the hour or on short-term contracts. University teaching was casualised almost as much as the fast food industry.

            Also beginning in the 1980s, the government pushed universities and other higher education institutions to amalgamate. Increased size, through amalgamations and student recruitment, became a goal, augmented by setting up of additional campuses in Australia and in other countries. Universities became big businesses, with budgets of many hundreds of millions of dollars.

            In higher management at Australian universities, finances became a preoccupation. All avenues for income are canvassed, though the options have been restricted mainly to government funding, student fees and research grants. The other side of the coin has been cost containment, including by increasing class sizes, cutting staff numbers and, as mentioned, relying ever more on casual staff for teaching.

            Unlike the US, in Australia there is no tradition of private support for universities. Gifts from alumni are welcome but are usually a tiny portion of income. Philanthropy is not prominent.

Enter Ramsay

Paul Ramsay

It was in this context that the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation entered the picture. Paul Ramsay made a fortune in private healthcare, including buying and running numerous hospitals.[1] He died in 2014, having bequeathed a portion of his estate to setting up university courses in Western civilisation, run with small classes in which students study great books, in the manner of a few other such courses in the US and elsewhere. The Ramsay Centre was set up to manage this bequest. In 2017, the Centre invited expressions of interest from Australian universities to receive funding to set up and run degrees in Western civilisation.

            The University of Wollongong was the first university to announce an agreement to set up such a degree. From the point of view of university managers, this was an attractive proposition. It would involve the largest ever injection of private money into an Australian university to fund a humanities programme, amounting to many tens of millions of dollars. It was enough to employ ten academics and give scholarships to dozens of undergraduates.

            Early in 2019, Professor Theo Farrell, executive dean of the Faculty of Law, Humanities and the Arts at UOW, outlined the financial benefits of the arrangement in meetings held to discuss the new degree.[2] The faculty was affected by a decline in the number of undergraduate students enrolling in arts degrees, a decline occurring across the state, not just at Wollongong.[3] The Ramsay-funded degree would have both direct and spinoff benefits financially. The students undertaking the degree would have to take a major or a double degree at the university, most likely in the faculty, giving a boost to enrolments.

            A secondary benefit was claimed: because the Ramsay-funded students had to have good results in high school and because they were being paid, they were more likely than other students to finish their degrees. If true, this would aid the faculty’s overall retention rate, something the government would favour.

            The Ramsay money would support the employment of ten academics and two professional staff. One of the academics is Dan Hutto, senior professor of philosophy, appointed head of the new School of Liberal Arts hosting the new degree. There are to be nine newly hired academics, all of them philosophers. Though hired for teaching, their relatively light teaching loads would free them up to do research. Their presence potentially could turn UOW into a philosophy powerhouse, beyond its current dynamism led by Hutto.

            From the point of view of its advocates, the new degree thus brought great advantages to the faculty and the university. It involved the injection of a large amount of money with spinoff benefits for the rest of the faculty. And it would position UOW as a prominent player internationally among great-books programmes and in philosophy.

            Acceptance of the degree was not straightforward. As soon as it was announced, academics and students expressed opposition. Here, I look at the grounds for opposition under several categories: decision-making, the conservative connection, Western civilisation and equality. In practice, these concerns are often mixed together.

Anti-Ramsay protest, UOW, 1 March 2019. Photo: Adam McLean, Illawarra Mercury


Discussions between the centre and UOW were carried out in secret. Only a few people at the university even knew negotiations were occurring. Critics decried the secrecy.

            University officials said, in defence, that these sorts of negotiations are carried out all the time, without any public announcement. Indeed, there are many examples in which major developments have been announced as fait accompli. For example, in November 2018 an announcement was made that the university had purchased colleges in Malaysia.[4] There was no protest about this; indeed, few took any notice.

            On the other hand, the Ramsay Centre was already controversial elsewhere, separately from Wollongong. As the Australian National University negotiated with the Ramsay Centre, there was considerable publicity, especially when university leaders decided against having a Western civilisation degree because of concerns about academic freedom. At the University of Sydney, major opposition emerged to a Ramsay-funded degree, with protests and much media coverage.

            In this context, the secrecy at UOW seemed anomalous. It was true that university management often proceeded on major initiatives without consultation with academic staff, but this was not a typical case: it was already known to be controversial.

The conservative connection

On the Ramsay Centre board are two prominent political conservatives: former prime ministers John Howard and Tony Abbott. For quite a few staff at UOW, the presence of Howard and Abbott tainted the Ramsay Centre and its funds.

            As explained by Farrell, the board of the Ramsay Centre has no input into what was taught in the degree. Negotiations with the centre were with two academics that it employed, Simon Haines and Stephen McInerney, not with the board.

            One of the concerns expressed about the degree was that Ramsay Centre representatives would be members of the selection committees for the newly hired academics. For many academics, the idea of non-academic ideologues sitting on academic selection committees was anathema. Farrell countered by emphasising that members of the Ramsay Centre Board, such as Howard and Abbott, would have nothing to do with appointments. Only the Ramsay academics would be involved. A typical selection committee would have the two Ramsay academics, one outside academic, up to six UOW academics including Farrell as chair of the committee. Farrell said that it was not unusual for non-UOW figures to sit on selection committees. In other words, there were many precedents for the processes relating to the new degree.

            Farrell noted that in his experience most selection committees operate by consensus, not voting, but that if it came to a vote, UOW members had the numbers. In response to a question about what the Ramsay academics would be looking for — the worry being that they would want candidates aligned with particular political positions — Farrell said that in his interactions so far with the Ramsay academics, their main concern was that the appointees be good teachers.

            At a meeting for faculty members about the new degree held on 11 February, Marcelo Svirsky, senior lecturer in International Studies, raised a concern about the reputational damage caused by the connection between Ramsay and the university. Farrell said the university’s reputation internationally would be enhanced via connections with Columbia University and other institutions with similar sorts of degrees. Such connections were important given how difficult it was to build affiliations with leading universities. Domestically, Farrell said that information about the content of the UOW degree was gaining traction in the media, counteracting earlier bad publicity about the proposed degrees at other universities. He explicitly denied any risk to reputation.

            It is fascinating to speculate what the response to the Ramsay money would have been had Howard and Abbott not been on the board. Many academics vehemently oppose the political positions of Howard and Abbott, making it difficult to accept any initiative associated with the two politicians. In the wider public, the involvement of Howard and Abbott mean the Ramsay Centre is inevitably caught up in the emotions associated with right-wing politics and the so-called culture wars.

            Would there be the same academic opposition to money coming from a centre linked to leading figures from green or socialist politics? This can only be surmised, because if a green-red twin of the Ramsay Centre were funding a degree, it would not be called a degree in Western civilisation.

Western civilisation

For academics in some sections of the humanities and social sciences, “Western civilisation” is a term of opprobrium, not endearment. It is useful to note that in several fields, critique is one of the standard tools: accepted ideas, practices and institutions are subject to critical scrutiny, often with assumptions and beliefs skewered. For example, in my field of science and technology studies, challenges to ideas such as scientific progress and “technology is neutral” are fundamental to much teaching and research. Yet, in the wider public, conventional ideas about science, technology and progress remain dominant. Therefore, teaching in the field necessarily involves questioning conventional thinking.

            For some, “Western civilisation” brings up images of Socrates, Michelangelo, Shakespeare and Einstein: great thinkers and creators from Europe. It also brings up images of parliamentary democracy, human rights and liberation from oppressive systems of domination. These are some of the positives of Western history and politics.


            There is also a seamier side to Western history and politics. Colonialism and imperialism sponsored by Western European states resulted in massive death, displacement and enslavement of Indigenous peoples. In Australia, white settlement caused death and the destruction of the culture of Aboriginal peoples.

            As well as the legacy of colonialism, the history of Europe has its own dark aspects, for example the Crusades, the Inquisition, the horrors of the industrial revolution and the Nazi genocide. A full account of Western cultures needs to address their damaging as well as their uplifting sides.

            While Western civilisation has been responsible for horrific deeds, these have been carried out with convenient rationales. Colonialism was seen by its defenders as part of a civilising mission, bringing enlightenment to savage peoples. Yet the aftermath of this mission continues to cause suffering. For example, in Rwanda, Belgian colonialists imposed the categories of Tutsi and Hutu on the population, helping lay the stage for the 1994 genocide. In Australia, poverty and incarceration of Aboriginal people are among the contemporary consequences of colonialism.

Not on the reading list for the degree in Western civilisation

            For many academics, it is imperative to challenge the glorified myth of the beneficence of Western culture. It is part of the scholarly quest to attain insight into what really happened, not just what is convenient to believe, and this often involves pointing to the unsavoury aspects of history and politics that others would rather ignore or downplay.

            In this context, the very label “Western civilisation” is an insult to some scholars in the area, because the term “civilisation” has positive connotations unlike, for example, “Western barbarism.” For scholars, the label “Western civilisation” suggests a focus only on one side of a complex and contentious past and legacy.

            Hutto, in presenting the subjects to be taught in UOW’s Western civilisation degree, emphasised that about half of them involved studying texts from other cultures, including texts concerning Buddhism, Islam and Indigenous cultures. To fully understand Western culture, it is valuable to appreciate other cultures: a respectful dialogue provides more insights than concentrating on Western items alone.

Printing was invented in China

            As well, some of the texts that Hutto proposed from Western writers offered critical perspectives on Western societies. In these ways, Hutto distanced the degree from Abbott’s claim that it would be for Western civilisation,[5] instead positioning it as something different. In Hutto’s view, the degree uses the study of great works of Western civilisation, in conversation with non-Western traditions, as a way for students to develop their critical capacities, using evidence and argument to back up their views. In short, Hutto’s aim for the degree is that students learn how to think, not what to think. Students are bound to be exposed to critical perspectives, including in the major or degree they are required to take in addition to the one in Western civilisation.

            The degree as designed by Hutto might clash with the conceptions of some Ramsay Centre board members. It might also clash with the public perception, at least as informed by media coverage, that the degree would be one-sided advocacy for Western contributions. Intriguingly, if Howard or Abbott were to express reservations about UOW’s degree, this would temper the media and public perceptions of one-sidedness.

            One of the problems with the concept of Western civilisation is that, in the public debate, it is seldom defined. Some critics might say that to talk of Western civilisation is a category mistake, attributing a reality to an abstraction whose meaning is contested. The variability of the meaning of “Western civilisation” may lie behind some of the disputes over the degree carrying this name.

Equality of resourcing

Ramsay’s large donation seems like a boon to a cash-strapped university, enabling the hiring of staff and the running of small classes that otherwise would be infeasible. On the other hand, UOW’s planned degree creates tensions between the privileged few and the rest.

UOW’s building 19, where the School of Liberal Arts will be located

The academics hired to teach the new degree would seem to have some extra benefits. In particular, they will be teaching small classes, of no more than ten students, of high-calibre students. In contrast, their colleagues, namely the rest of the academics in the faculty, are saddled with tutorial classes of 25, plus lectures sometimes with hundreds of students.

            For some academics, this contrast is a source of considerable disquiet. Imagine someone working in a field where offerings cover the same topics as proposed in the Western civilisation degree. They might well say, “We have the expertise and experience in the area. Why are we being squeezed while newcomers are given generous conditions to teach the same topics from a philosophical perspective?”

            There has been no formal response to questions of this type. One reply would be to say that there are all sorts of inequalities between staff, only some of which are related to merit. The most obvious inequality is between permanent and non-permanent teachers. Some of the teachers on casual appointments are just as qualified as those with continuing appointments. There are also inequalities between academics, especially in research. For example, some researchers are exempted from teaching on an official or de-facto basis.

            Academics tend to be highly sensitive to inequality in treatment, in part because professional status is so highly valued. There are regular disputes about workloads: seeing a colleague with a lighter teaching load can cause envy or resentment. That a whole group of new academics seems to receive special conditions can bring this sort of resentment to the fore.

            The students selected for scholarships to undertake the Western civilisation degree have to satisfy several conditions. They must be Australian citizens or permanent residents, young, recently completed high school and have obtained a high score in the examinations at the end of high school. In other words, mature-age students and international students are excluded from consideration. Scholarship students will receive an annual stipend of $27,000, paid for up to five years.[6]

            To some, the special privileges for scholarship students are unfair, especially the restriction to young Australian students. To this, a reply might be that inequalities between students are commonplace. The most obvious is between domestic and international students, the latter having to pay large tuition fees. Students on postgraduate scholarships are privileged too. This sometimes can be justified on merit, though the difference between students near the scholarship cut-off point may be tiny.


To appreciate the struggle over the Ramsay-Centre-funded degree in Western civilisation at the University of Wollongong, it is useful to think of the key players as using tactics to counter the moves of their opponents. Thinking this way is a convenience and does not imply that players actually think in terms of a strategic encounter.

            The proponents of the degree seem to be driven by two main considerations: the availability of a large amount of private money to be injected into the humanities, and the opportunity to build a world-class philosophy unit. To acquire the Ramsay money and build the philosophy unit, it was useful to counter likely sources of opposition, in particular the opposition of academics in cognate units concerned about the ideological associations with the Ramsay Centre and the concept of Western civilisation.

            To forestall the sort of rancorous public debate that occurred at the Australian National University and Sydney University, which might scuttle the degree before it was agreed, the degree proponents negotiated in secret. This did indeed reduce public debate, but at the expense of a different source of concern, the secrecy itself.

            To counter concerns associated with the ideological associations with Ramsay and Western civilisation, Dan Hutto, designer of the degree, went to considerable effort to include in the core subjects respectful intellectual engagements with non-Western cultures, and to include negative as well as positive sides of Western culture.

One of Western civilisation’s technological innovations

            Critics and opponents of the degree were not mollified. Some simply ignored the innovative aspects of the subject offerings and assumed that any degree labelled “Western civilisation” must be an apologia for Western colonialism. Other opponents, though, focused on procedural matters, for example the fast-track approval of the degree despite its possible risk to the university’s reputation.

            One of the consequences of the degree is the introduction of a privileged stratum of staff, with much lighter teaching loads, and of students given scholarships to undertake the degree. For proponents of the degree, there is no easy way to address the associated staff and student inequality. However, this inequality has not played a significant role in the public debate. There are numerous other inequalities within universities, so perhaps the introduction of one more, despite its high profile, is not a likely trigger for public concern.

            One of the positive outcomes of the new degree is the debate it has stimulated. Hutto has grasped the opportunity by planning to have the students discuss, in their first week in the degree beginning in 2020, the debate about the degree itself. For those so inclined, the new degree provides a golden opportunity to articulate critiques of Western civilisation and make them available to staff and students in the new School of Liberal Arts. Although Tony Abbott claimed that the Ramsay-funded degrees would be for Western civilisation, it is quite possible that many of the degree graduates will develop a sophisticated understanding of Western civilisation. Perhaps, along the way, members of the public will learn more about both the high and low aspects of Western cultures.

            What would Paul Ramsay think of the furore over degrees in Western civilisation? Perhaps he would be bemused that his bequest is receiving much more attention than he ever sought for himself during his lifetime.

I thank the many individuals who have discussed the issues with me and who have offered comments on drafts.

[1] In the debate about Ramsay Centre funding, Paul Ramsay and Ramsay Health Care have scarcely been mentioned. Michael Wynne, a vigorous critic of corporate health care, developed an extensive website with information about numerous heathcare corporations in the US and Australia. While being critical of for-profit heathcare, Wynne has relatively generous comments about Paul Ramsay himself and about Ramsay Health Care, at least compared to other players in the corporate scene. See:

• “Corporate Medicine Web Site,” https://www.bmartin.cc/dissent/documents/health/

• “Ramsay Health Care”, https://www.bmartin.cc/dissent/documents/health/ramsay_main.html

• “Paul Ramsay”, https://www.bmartin.cc/dissent/documents/health/ramsay_leaders.html#Paul Ramsay

Wynne’s pages on Ramsay were last updated in 2005, but after this Paul Ramsay played a less direct role in Ramsay Health Care.

Screen shot from Michael Wynne’s website on corporate healthcare

[2] I attended meetings on 16 January and 11 February 2019 held for members of the Faculty of Law, Humanities and the Arts. Theo Farrell and Dan Hutto told about plans for the new degree and answered questions.

[3] Another factor, specific to UOW, was the setting up of a Faculty of Social Sciences that, despite its name, does not house the classic social sciences of sociology, political science and economics. This faculty set up a social science degree that is in direct competition with the arts degree, attracting students that otherwise would have contributed to the budget for the Faculty of Law, Humanities and the Arts.

[4] Andrew Herring, “University of Wollongong continues global expansion into Malaysia,” 19 November 2018, https://media.uow.edu.au/releases/UOW253448.html: The media release begins as follows: “The University of Wollongong (UOW) has continued its global expansion by acquiring the university colleges of Malaysian private education provider KDU from long-standing Malaysian investment company Paramount Corporation Berhad (PCB).

Subject to Malaysian Ministry of Education approval, the deal will see UOW wholly-owned subsidiary, UOW Global Enterprises, immediately acquire a substantive majority equity interest in the university colleges in Kuala Lumpur and Penang—including the new campus under construction in Batu Kawan.”

[5] Tony Abbott, “Paul Ramsay’s vision for Australia,” Quadrant Online, 24 May 2018, https://quadrant.org.au/magazine/2018/04/paul-ramsays-vision-australia/. Quite a few commentators blamed Abbott’s article for hindering acceptance of a Ramsay-funded degree at the Australian National University, e.g. Michael Galvin, “Abbott single-handedly destroys Ramsay Centre for Cheering On White People,” The Independent, 17 June 2018; Peter van Onselen, “Ramsay Centre has Tony Abbott to blame for ANU’s rejection,” The Australian, 9 June 2018. Note that the preposition for is contained in the full name of the centre: the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation.

[6] Entry to the degree course is open to students of any age, and to five non-residents. The conditions mentioned apply only to those receiving Ramsay scholarships, and even then exceptions can be made. An ATAR (Australian Tertiary Admission Rank) of 95 has been mentioned as an expectation for scholarship recipients. Other factors will be taken into account.

Brian Martin