But the money for the Western civilisation courses was conditional on universities signing up.
The deal would scuttle any plans for degrees at more than three institutions. And if the centre did not persuade three universities to host the degrees, it could not have that money to use for other purposes, such as developing its own program.
The two organisations had been at loggerheads over how Mr Ramsay’s bequest should be spent, as the late healthcare billionaire left no explicit instructions.
Directors of the foundation felt the Ramsay Centre wanted to spend too much on the study of Western civilisation, which would benefit relatively few people. But the centre argued Mr Ramsay wanted it to have “first call” on foundation funds.
A spokeswoman for the centre declined to expand on Mr Howard’s statement and a spokesman for the foundation refused to comment.
Already, one university has accepted the offer. Last week’s deal allowed Wollongong University’s Council to use its executive powers to approve on Friday a Ramsay-funded Western civilisation degree that will begin in 2020.
Mr Howard’s spokesman said a formal agreement between the centre and the university would be signed “shortly”.
The National Tertiary Education Union had been challenging the university’s approval processes in the Supreme Court, but the council’s move makes that challenge – which was due to be heard on July 1 – redundant.
The University of Wollongong is billing the degree as one for the “intellectually fearless”. Applications for Ramsay scholarships – which will involve $30,000 a year and an overseas airfare – will open on August 1.
A spokesman for the university said the course had been “well received by students and their parents” at careers fairs.
But the head of the university’s branch of the National Tertiary Education Union, Georgine Clarsen, said academics were “shocked and blindsided” by the council’s decision. Union lawyers were looking at options.
“This is totally unprecedented and it suggests to me that academic processes have completely been thrown under the bus here at the University of Wollongong,” she said.
The University of Queensland’s plans to set up a Ramsay-funded Western civilisation major have also met resistance from some academics, but the administration has pushed ahead and will put the proposed curriculum to the next meeting of the academic board.
Sydney University is still waiting to hear back from the Ramsay Centre after submitting a proposed memorandum of understanding late last year. Many of the academics in its Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences are hostile to the proposal.
Jordan Baker is Education Editor of The Sydney Morning Herald