Unis are sacrificing student experience, says Ramsay Centre chief

Apr 1, 2022 | News & Media, Read

Sydney, 31 March 2022: The Sydney Morning Herald published this news article online today. For the full article as it appears on the Sydney Morning Herald website click here

By Daniella White, Education reporter

Universities are sacrificing student experience and the quality of their teaching in the pursuit of research ranking and grant-seeking imperatives, the head of the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation says.

Centre chief executive Professor Simon Haines said some university academics should be incentivised to put teaching at the top of their career development.

Speaking at the launch of sociologist Salvatore Babones’ book, Australian Universities: Can they reform?, Professor Haines said the centre had been cautious in its public comments because of the public furore surrounding its formation five years ago.

However, he said the institution now attracts the most competition for a humanities course entry in Australia.

The Ramsay Centre offers western civilisation degrees at the Australian Catholic University, University of Wollongong, and University of Queensland. They feature generous scholarships and small class sizes, funded as part of a $3 billion bequest from health care magnate Paul Ramsay.

In 2018 and 2019, the centre was engaged in discussions to set up a base at the Australian National University and the University of Sydney. However, agreement on a proposed model could not be reached amid concerns about academic freedom and backlash from some academics who claimed that the centre was trying to push a right-wing agenda.

“That narrative was crafted and was put out in the public domain by [the universities’] senior managers and their PR managers, while for our part the centre had to be much more circumspect in our comments given we were already engaged in equivalent negotiations with other universities whose senior management had no such issues with us,” Professor Haines said.

He said the Ramsay Centre degrees had achieved student satisfaction ratings which were “through the roof” and this was “pretty much” the only metric the institution was interested in.

Student feedback data for the courses has not been made publicly available, but the University of Wollongong has stated that its surveys show the course’s students are among its most satisfied.

University of Queensland told the centre that its western civilisation degree is now the single most competitive humanities course for entry in Australia, Professor Haines said.

The centre offers scholarships of about $30,000 to 30 students annually at each participating institution, and says tutorials ordinarily have no more than 10 students.

“It’s also reproducing social inequities because we’ve been trying to find out more where these students come from and overwhelmingly they come from a select few private Brisbane schools.

“It’s affirmative action for the wealthy.”

But Professor Haines said the reason the centre was in business was to keep the model of intense, small group teaching in the humanities alive and that the course content was non-partisan.

“But we can only do that because of the generosity of one Australian billionaire … but without that level of private funding I don’t know where that comes from,” he said.

“Over a long period of time … we’ve increasingly devalued teaching and the classroom teaching experience at the expense of this thing called research which has huge value in many ways but is squeezing out things we would all want at least some Australians to have access to.”