'Elite not elitist': NSW unis pitch for billionaire's bequest

Paul Ramsay at the Ramsay health care agm in sydney, nsw, australia. 071120 AFR PICTURE BY PETER BRAIG.
SPECIALX 75002
Paul Ramsay at the Ramsay health care agm in sydney, nsw, australia. 071120 AFR PICTURE BY PETER BRAIG. SPECIALX 75002

In the biggest philanthropic gift in the history of education in Australia, as many as 10 NSW universities are vying for the chance to offer a new western civilisation degree to be completely funded as part of a $3 billion bequest from health care magnate Paul Ramsay.

Mr Ramsay, who died in 2014, wanted a significant part of his personal fortune to be spent on funding an academic centre to revive the liberal arts and humanities.

The new Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation, to be formally launched on Monday, will offer a western civilisation arts degree in two or possibly three universities in NSW and the ACT, as well as fund 30 generous scholarships at each selected university.

About $25 million a year will be spent on the centre and its Ramsay scholars, as they will be known, will get at least $25,000 a year to cover tuition and living costs.

The centre's chief executive, Simon Haines, who was previously professor of English at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said the centre "would not be a think tank".

"This will be a teaching enterprise, not a political one," Professor Haines said.

The centre is currently evaluating the expressions of interest from NSW and ACT universities which want to collaborate with the centre, with 10 of the 12 NSW universities having indicated that they would be submitting a formal proposal, Professor Haines said.

It is understood the two or three successful universities will be announced in the new year.

The board of the centre includes notable conservatives, including former prime ministers John Howard and Tony Abbott, but to broaden its political reach, the former Labor leader and US ambassador Kim Beazley and the powerful right-wing unionist Joe De Bruyn were recent appointees.

The male-dominated board will be boosted by some female appointments, Professor Haines said.

"There is no doubt this is the biggest thing for the liberal arts and humanities that has ever happened in this country," Professor Haines said.

He said the centre would offer degrees that would "be as prestigious and as high quality" as some of the top universities in the US and UK.

"We will be elite but not elitist," Professor Haines said.

The model of teaching would be very similar to the leading liberal arts universities in the US such as St Johns, Amherst and Columbia, with small classes of about six students rather than huge lectures.

The centre will recruit leading academics from around the world and Australia, Professor Haines said.

Professor Haines said although the centre would be fully funded, it would not dictate how the selected universities run the degree programmes.

"We will not be telling them what to do, they will retain their independence," Professor Haines said.

There will also be several Ramsay postgraduate scholarships, which will be open to recent Australian graduates from a range of academic disciplines, for study at prestigious international universities, and the centre will run a program of summer schools, with distinguished visiting lecturers.

The centre says "generations of young Australians will eventually benefit from this unique opportunity, and learn to value their own civilisational heritage, at no cost to the taxpayer."

This story 'Elite not elitist': NSW unis pitch for billionaire's bequest first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.