Universities: the good, the bad and the Ramsay Centre

In late 2018, about the same time Raewyn Connell and her publishers in London and Melbourne (Zed Books and Monash University Publishing) were putting the finishing touches to her The Good University: What Universities Actually Do and Why It’s time for Radical Change, a small group of people were secretively putting the finishing touches to a Memorandum of Understanding between the controversial Sydney-based Ramsay Centre and the regional University of Wollongong (UOW), on the South Coast of NSW.

Launched in November 2017 by former conservative Prime Minister John Howard, the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation was bankrolled by part of the $3 billion fortune of Paul Ramsay, the deceased head of the Ramsay Health Care empire. Over the years, Ramsay had donated millions to the Liberal Party, whose health policies proved conducive to his empire building. Heirless and ageing, and with the midwife assistance of Howard and former conservative Prime Minister Tony Abbott, Ramsay decided to leave a swag of his fortune to the purpose-developed Ramsay Centre. Its mission was to generously bankroll an arts degree in three Australian universities, pitched to a hand-selected cadre of undergrad students – each with scholarships on a par with those competitively granted to doctoral students.

As Tony Abbott – one of its main architects – explained in the conservative journal Quadrant last year, the centre would be ‘not merely about Western civilisation, but in favour of it’ (his emphasis). Vigilance, he continued, would need be kept to ensure the course, based on the American Cold War Great Books project, was not derailed by leftism and that a right-wing trajectory was maintained. Sympathetic commentators noted how – sinisterly – cultural Marxism had contaminated Australian universities. As for the education model Abbott looked approvingly back on, it was his Jesuit schooling and training.

The Australian National University (ANU) was the first to bite at the Ramsay carrot. Eventually, however, it stopped short of jumping on board, citing unreasonable demands made by the Centre relating to academic freedom. The back-off only came after democratic procedures had been followed at the ANU and discussion had been allowed to take place. It was the same elsewhere, with critical discussion within universities pointing to the ideological nature of the  project and the ways in which implementation meant that public universities would virtually sell off part of their governance to a private organisation with deep pockets and a right-wing agenda.

While some universities continue to nibble at the offer, the UOW had no hesitation: like Peter Rabbit in Mr McGregor’s garden, it snatched the bait. Possibly with legal advice creatively interpreting the university’s governance by-laws, a coterie of UOW leaders and a few in-the-know academics secretively signed up to the Ramsay deal. The first the UOW community, its staff, its alumni and the public heard of the deal was a little after midnight, 17 December 2018, when sketchy details were released in a staff email. This was followed by a triumphal media release. Both were very short on detail.

This was a strategic move. The Ramsay/UOW Memorandum of Understanding was formulated, signed and sealed out of sight and unbeknownst to the UOW community and the general public. Democratic procedures were by-passed and debate that may have thwarted the deal was effectively stymied.

The manner in which the news was released was also strategic. The UOW was in end-of-year mode. Most academic staff were elsewhere, variously conferencing, on leave, researching and writing, busy with pre-2019-teaching matters. Much of the university’s huge precarious workforce was variously serving coffees, pulling beers, stacking supermarket shelves, tightening budgets, filling in Centrelink forms and hoping for academic re-engagements for 2019. (According to Workplace Gender Equality Agency data (2016-2017), the UOW has the highest insecure workforce rate of all Australian universities – a whopping 76.8%.)

At the time of writing, the Ramsay/UOW deal has a way to go. Following protests by staff and students and adverse publicity nationally, the university’s Academic Senate voted to reject it on March 20. While this body does not have the legal power to sink the deal, the vote was a very public and embarrassing rebuke to the Vice Chancellor and to his supporters. As they say in the classics, the ball is still in play.

It is interesting to read these events against Connell’s new book. According to her criteria, the ‘good university’ aims to develop a genuine community, not just feel-good fluff on a university webpage. The ‘good university’ is not the preserve of a managerial elite – its processes are transparent, and blindsiding them would be anathema. The ‘good university’ pursues as many democratic processes and possibilities as one can put in place and it does not stymie debate nor paternalistically practice what Marcuse called repressive tolerance. On all of these qualities, the supporters of the Ramsay initiative at the UOW fail miserably. And while we’re here, the ‘good university’ – according to Connell – promotes ‘job security and workforce stability’, both woefully lacking at the UOW.

Why should what Raewyn Connell say matter? Quite simply, she is one of Australia’s most cited scholars globally in sociology, education, gender studies, political science. She is author, co/part-author, co/part-editor of twenty-four books, many of which have been issued in multiple editions. Her Masculinities (1995) is the leading text on its topic in the field of gender studies. Connell’s works have been translated into twenty languages. Currently based at Sydney University, she has taught in eight universities nationally and internationally over a period of fifty years.

The question of what makes a good university has been absorbing Connell since the 1960s. In 1967-72, she was part of the experimental Free University in Sydney (full disclosure: I was also involved), which operated out of its own rented premises and attempted to combine scholarly research with activism. At its height, in the Summer of 1968/69, some 300 people were involved in its courses. According to Australia’s First – the official history of Sydney University – the experiment helped bring about much-needed curriculum, governance and teaching changes.

In the book, Connell explains that the concept of the university as both a teaching and a research institution developed in the nineteenth century, while the current dominant business model is part of the neoliberal politico/economic changes of the last forty years. She goes on to examine the basic makeup of universities globally, what they claim and attempt to do, what they really do (claims and realities do not necessarily correlate) and how they do it. The picture that emerges is one where university education is booming globally, yet at the same time is subject to significant outside political and public challenge, and replete with tensions and conflict within.

The Good University draws on research, experiences and examples from the cultures of both the global North and South, a practice Connell established in her pioneering Southern Theory (2007). The book deals with an immense amount of material in a lucid, thoroughly referenced way. Connell’s prescription is not pie-in-the-sky: she makes powerful cases for universities breaking away from the current neoliberal business model and rejecting the neoliberal management which is making them more boring by the day; pursuing research that is responsive to social needs and not the dictates of wealthy private interests – to address, for example, issues of global justice, war and peace, the environment and the fate of the planet; freeing research and knowledge production from the fast- track urgency required by neoliberalism and the associated tyranny of algorithms; making universities accessible to all and not the privileged few; and, finally, creating a system that is ‘cooperative rather than antagonistic and competitive.’

Connell’s analysis may seem bleak, since modern universities tend to fall short of the ‘good’ qualities discussed. However, she was never one to abandon hope, and so the book’s concluding chapters examine paths for change, drawing from what she describes as a rich history of ‘alternative, experimental and reform universities.’

The Good University is an important book which should be read by anyone concerned about modern academia, both inside and outside the institutions. It should also be mandatory reading for all of Australia’s Vice-Chancellors. If they fail to engage with this book, it would make them unworthy of the millions of dollars they draw in salaries from the public purse.

Rowan Cahill

Rowan Cahill is a sessional teaching academic at the University of Wollongong, and the co-author with Terry Irving of Radical Sydney (UNSW Press, 2013).

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