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History fervour spurs $10m uni donation

A passion for ancient Greek wars, the Renaissance and art has led to the biggest individual donation for history studied for an Australian university.

BRW Rich Lister Paul Little and his wife Jane Hansen have donated $10 million to the University of Melbourne to boost teaching standards for history studies in the arts faculty.

Ms Hansen, a former investment banker who is currently undertaking an arts degree at the university, said when asked about the donation and why she was so passionate about the importance of studying history: "Who wouldn't want to know what made the 300 stand their ground at Thermopylae or why Caesar crossed the Rubicon, or Hitler pushed on towards Stalingrad or what caused Gorbachev to tear down the [Berlin] Wall?

"It is my intention this will change the conversation about history. I want to encourage awareness of the significance of an education in history and nurture a passion and appreciation for its relevance in the wider community,” she said.

Federal government statistics show enrolments for society and culture courses such as history have held up well in the past few years, despite the clamour for more graduates from the so-called STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects.

The donation is claimed to be the most significant gift to the advancement of history at an Australian university and will be me first of many in the arts sector, Mr Little said.

The couple announced the donation on Monday, which is the first significant philanthropic effort of their Little Foundation and will fund several initiatives in history studies.

Ms Hansen has long been a strong advocate for the arts. She is on the board of the Melbourne Theatre Company and as well as her current arts degree, has degrees in economics and a master of finance and business administration from Monash and Columbia universities.

The foundation will, via $8 million from the Hansen Trust fund the Hansen Chair in History, three Hansen lectureships, an annual Hansen PhD scholarship and, in conjunction with the faculty of arts, a senior lectureship in history.

Melbourne University vice-chancellor Glyn Davis said: “This is the largest gift for the faculty of arts in its history [and] it's an investment in history that we have never seen before."

Mr Little, the former chief executive of Toll Holdings, has a long involvement with the transport company's First Step and Second Step drug treatment and rehabilitation programs.

'The foundation will continue to stay involved in and fund those programs and we will look to more in that space at the appropriate time," Mr Little said.

He and Ms Hansen are also funding the Mavis Little Award for the Victorian Artists Society artist of the year.

Several business identities have made large donations to universities this year. Barry Lambert gave $34 million to the University of Sydney for cannabinoid research and Michael Buxton donated $10 million of contemporary art to Melbourne University and $16 million to build a gallery to house the works.

Originally published in the Australian Financial Review at