Australia’s controversial Western Civilization courses are proving popular with students despite bitter opposition from many staff, the data shows.
The extended majors in Western Civilization at the University of Queensland (UQ) have some of the most demanding undergraduate entrance scores in the country. Students must achieve Australian Tertiary Admissions Rankings (ATAR) of 95.85 or 98.5 (on a scale of 0 to 99.5), depending on whether the major is part of an honors degree or a double diploma.
These benchmarks exceed those imposed for the flagship courses generally targeted by the best students in the schools. UQ has released ATAR cut scores of 95 for medicine and 90 for law. Minimum entrance grades for arts degrees at top Australian universities such as UQ, University of Sydney and Monash University are usually between 70 and 80.
The University of Wollongong (UoW) said its Bachelor of Arts in Western Civilization achieved average satisfaction ratings of 5.74, compared to 4.91 across the university, while almost 80% of Program students have achieved final grades of distinction or better – results far above the university average.
UoW and UQ were the first institutions to sign deals with the Ramsay Center for Western Civilization, which has pledged each university more than A$50 million ($37 million) to fund tuition and scholarships partners over five years.
The programs began in 2020, taught in groups of around 10 per class – in stark contrast to many Australian undergraduate programs, where hundreds of students fill lecture halls – and with 30 students per class attracting scholarships up to at five years old.
The Western Civilization courses were met with intense hostility at both institutions, as well as at the University of Sydney and the Australian National University, where negotiations with the Ramsay Center broke down. Staff said the programs would undermine institutional autonomy and foster uncritical triumphalist perspectives of Western civilization among privileged white student cadres, which the universities deny.
“We work hard to make sure there’s a diversity of voices in the classroom,” said Alastair Blanchard, director of UQ’s Center for Western Civilization. He said 20% of this year’s scholarship recipients said they experienced “personal disadvantages”, such as financial hardship or personal trauma, during their schooling. At the institutional level, only about 10% of UQ students come from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds.
Australia’s Catholic University, which introduced a BA in Western Civilization in 2021, said its students include people of Chinese, Egyptian, Filipino and Indian descent. According to program director Robert Carver, about a quarter of them came from outer suburbs or regional areas and said the scholarship “made a difference”. “[It] removes much of the anxiety and makes it possible to come from a regional location to study in northern Sydney.
Another staff objection to the Ramsay Center is that former Conservative prime ministers John Howard and Tony Abbott sit on its board, with Howard as chairman. While the council also includes former union leaders, critics say Howard and Abbott had undue influence on Ramsay’s agenda.
“The people…who for 25 years made humanities degrees more expensive and starved us of funding created this boutique program,” said Andrew Bonnell, president of the UQ chapter of the National Tertiary Education Union. “If you deal with dead Westerners, you get rewarded, and if you do a more pluralistic and academic agenda, you get punished.”
A Wollongong staff member, who asked not to be named, said it was no surprise students were “having such a great time” in Ramsay’s classes. “They’re having a sort of very spoiled private school experience in a sea of underfunded, short-resourced faculties.”
Ramsay Center chief executive Simon Haines acknowledged that the program’s popularity owed a lot to the small-group format. “[It] means that the quality of teaching directly feeds into and is reflected in student engagement,” he said. “While we recognize that this model is difficult to replicate on a large scale, given the sector’s funding constraints, measuring student engagement…is the metric we are really interested in.”
Blanchard said the courses appeal to students eager to engage in “big ideas” across a range of disciplines. “No other major allows you to combine literature, political philosophy, art history, musicology, theater and jurisprudence in this way.” The work covered in the courses was “neither easy nor superficial”, which the students appreciated.
Carver said his program aims to examine Western civilization in its complexity, recognizing its shortcomings. “To fix it or improve it, you have to understand it,” he said. “Students say, ‘My brain hurts, I have to question everything I believed in until now.'”