Broad of­fer­ings will sus­tain non-sciences, says Dean Forbes

Broad cur­ric­ula are vi­tal if sub­jects out­side the sciences are to stay at­trac­tive in the dig­i­tal age, says Dean Forbes

THE (Times Higher Education) - - CONTENTS -

The hu­man­i­ties and so­cial sciences are un­der in­creas­ing fi­nan­cial pres­sure in Aus­tralian uni­ver­si­ties. So why would a univer­sity turn down fi­nan­cial sup­port for a new course that came with gen­er­ous stu­dent schol­ar­ships?

As has been re­ported, the pri­vately funded, not-for-profit Ram­say Cen­tre for Western Civ­i­liza­tion, es­tab­lished in 2007, is of­fer­ing fund­ing for new cour­ses on Western civil­i­sa­tion in Aus­tralian uni­ver­si­ties, on an Oxbridgestyle small-class ba­sis. The pro­gramme has a “great books” fo­cus and sim­i­lar­i­ties to other cour­ses in Aus­tralia and in the US. It would also have to be com­bined with an out­side ma­jor and elec­tives in other sub­jects.

But the cen­tre’s board con­tains two former Lib­eral Party prime min­is­ters, John Howard and Tony Ab­bott, and the pro­gramme is strongly sup­ported by Ru­pert Mur­doch’s news­pa­pers, rais­ing con­tention from ide­o­log­i­cal op­po­nents. A piece by Ab­bott in the lit­er­ary and cul­tural jour­nal Quad­rant crit­i­cal of con­tem­po­rary higher ed­u­ca­tion an­tag­o­nised the uni­ver­si­ties and stoked Aus­tralia’s on­go­ing cul­ture war over its his­tory.

The Ram­say board has sought in­ter­est among uni­ver­si­ties in New South Wales and Can­berra. The Aus­tralian Na­tional Univer­sity ex­plored a pro­posal to fund a new BA, but dis­cus­sions flipflopped un­til the univer­sity re­jected the pro­posal, amid op­po­si­tion from some staff and stu­dents to the con­cept of a course fo­cused ex­clu­sively on Western civil­i­sa­tion. Stu­dent as­so­ci­a­tion pres­i­dent Eleanor Kay ar­gued that talk of Western civil­i­sa­tion was a “rhetor­i­cal tool to con­tinue the racist pri­ori­ti­sa­tion of Western his­tory over other cul­tures”.

The ANU’s chan­cel­lor, former La­bor min­is­ter Gareth Evans, ar­gued that the pro­posed course was un­likely to ful­fil the needs of stu­dents or the univer­sity, and ac­cused the cen­tre of try­ing to mi­cro-man­age cur­ricu­lum and staffing. He also un­der­lined the im­por­tance of free speech on cam­pus – which some saw as ironic given the in­tol­er­ant at­ti­tude of the protesters to an al­ter­na­tive cur­ric­u­lar ap­proach. The Ram­say Cen­tre has links to the Hetero­dox Academy, an ad­vo­cate for “view­point di­ver­sity” on US cam­puses.

Crit­ics at the Univer­sity of Syd­ney are mak­ing sim­i­lar points as the in­sti­tu­tion pro­ceeds cau­tiously in its own dis­cus­sions with the cen­tre, while the Univer­sity of Queens­land’s Na­tional Ter­tiary Ed­u­ca­tion Union branch pub­licly warned that a Ram­say-funded course would not be wel­come there ex­cept un­der very strict con­di­tions – al­though the univer­sity has sub­mit­ted an ex­pres­sion of in­ter­est.

Teach­ing and re­search pro­grammes sup­ported by ex­ter­nal fund­ing are not un­known on Aus­tralian cam­puses. The China-funded Con­fu­cius Cen­tres are plen­ti­ful, just as there are many Aus­tralia Cen­tres in China. But Con­fu­cius Cen­tres are also con­tro­ver­sial, ac­cused by crit­ics of be­ing in­stru­ments of Chi­nese gov­ern­ment in­flu­ence.

Nor is it un­known for uni­ver­si­ties to turn their noses up at ex­ter­nal fund­ing. In 2015, Bjorn Lom­borg’s Copen­hagen Con­sen­sus Cen­tre wanted to set up an Aus­tralian op­er­a­tion. Lom­borg be­lieves cli­mate change is real but over­stated, and that scarce funds would be bet­ter spent on ad­dress­ing other global threats. While sev­eral uni­ver­si­ties were in­ter­ested, vo­cal op­po­si­tion on cam­puses helped to en­sure that no ma­jor univer­sity ac­cepted.

But a wide breadth of of­fer­ings in the hu­man­i­ties and so­cial sciences is cru­cial if stu­dents are not to desert these dis­ci­plines for the new pas­tures of dig­i­tal tech­nol­ogy as the fourth in­dus­trial revo­lu­tion un­folds. Too much of the crit­i­cism of the Ram­say pro­gramme boxes these dis­ci­plines into par­tic­u­lar con­tem­po­rary the­o­ries and dis­courses. Syd­ney aca­demics, for in­stance, ar­gue that it de­val­ues the non-West and needs to fo­cus on Indige­nous peo­ples’ strug­gles and the West’s pil­lag­ing of the world. Run­ning a course based around such a con­tested con­cept, some have claimed, would make the univer­sity an “in­tel­lec­tual back­wa­ter”.

But the space in the Ram­say cur­ricu­lum would al­low stu­dents to study a range of other sub­jects that ad­dress those points, as well as ac­quire tech­ni­cal skills and build their pro­fes­sional net­works.

Of course, aca­demics are en­ti­tled to have their say on whose money their in­sti­tu­tions ac­cept. But uni­ver­si­ties should be and are places of mul­ti­far­i­ous viewpoints and in­ter­ests. And the longterm dura­bil­ity of the hu­man­i­ties and so­cial sciences re­lies on their be­ing con­fi­dent enough to in­sist on di­ver­sity in their cur­ric­u­lar of­fer­ings – and to re­sist be­ing painted into ide­o­log­i­cal cor­ners. Dean Forbes is an emer­i­tus pro­fes­sor at Flin­ders Univer­sity, Ade­laide.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.