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University societies around Australia are dedicated to debating in national and international tournaments but these societies have acknowledged a problem with diversity in their community.

For most people, debating is a high school extra-curricular activity. In reality, it’s an elite sport in universities all over Australia that takes students as far as Cape Town for international tournaments.

“It’s a world you didn’t even know existed,” said Taris Watson, an executive member of Macquarie’s Debating Society.

Debating involves the skill of arguing, where two teams of three which represent the affirmative and negative side of a topic compete to convince an adjudicator that their side is the more persuasive.

“University debating is like high school debating without teacher supervision,” said Jerson Balaton, President of the University of New South Wales Debating Society. “You have a limited amount of prep time to come up with arguments and you rebut another team. But the topics are ones that teachers wouldn’t come up with.”

Most people are unaware of this world because it consists of private school graduates who have been trained to debate throughout their whole schooling.

Katherine Cheng, development officer at UNSW’s Debating Society, graduated from James Ruse Agricultural high school and has had personal experiences with how the competitive debating community can lock out students from public schools.

Coming from a selective school, Cheng experienced how private school students already trained in debating made her feel excluded as her school could not afford the extensive coaching that many private schools can.

“In debating, to be acknowledged or gain approval, it’s through trial by fire. If you’re not good, you won’t get noticed. They’re either dismissive or are just not nice to you which is why private school kids who already have that experience and come to university, they’re able to join cliques you’re not part of.”

Despite her initial experiences, Miss Cheng persevered in the community to improve her debating skills. Last year, she reached the octo-finals of the Australasian Intervarsity Debating Championships as an adjudicator in Malaysia. Later, she was elected Development Officer in the UNSW Debating Society executive team, where she ensures that all new debaters have the opportunity to improve their debating abilities no matter their background.

She is now a coach at the private school, Methodist Ladies College, and has realised more how private schools have a greater access to this activity.

“I got debating training in high school from a guy who don’t really care about much. I coach now at Methodist Ladies College (MLC) for competitive private school debating competitions which require weekly debates and training sessions. That means they get a lot more coaching and practice. Compared to PDC where training isn’t compulsory and you only get three guaranteed debates”

Premiers Debating Competition (PDC) is the only debating tournament for public high schools. This is in contrast with the multiple competitions that private schools can take part in, including the Independent Schools Debating Association (ISDA), Archdale and Friday Evening Debating (FED).G

Katherine Cheng’s 2nd Affirmative Speech at the Grand Final of the 2019 Australian Intervarsity Championships.
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Amelia Taylor, President of Macquarie University Debating Society, had the opposite experience. She attended the elite all girls private school, Roseville College, and debated throughout high school where she received consistent debating coaching.

She agrees on how private school students face more privilege in the competitive debating community. “University debating is a different style than high school, the gap is seen in how private schools can hire the more successful university debaters so they are more exposed to the higher standard of debating. This means they’re more likely to join university debating.”

In her second year of intervarsity debating, Taylor’s team won the 2017 Australian Intervarsity Championships and she is now a debating coach at the elite private all-boys school, St Aloysius College in Sydney’s lower north shore.

Miss Taylor said there were other reasons to why intervarsity debating was exclusive, “Debating is also an expensive activity with mini tournaments costing $50, national tournaments $400, international tournaments $700 which can be exclusive to people of high socioeconomic backgrounds.”

The problem with inclusion lies in the fact that the community is made up of white private school graduates who tend to be wealthy. In a study by the Independent Schools Council, only 29% of private school pupils were from a minority background.

In the 2018’s Australian Intervarsity Championships (‘Easters’), 94% of the top 10 ranked speakers were of Anglo-Saxon background and according to a Monash Debating Review conducted in 2013, male speakers scored an average of 1.2 points higher than female speakers.

The Review attributed this discrepancy to biases in how adjudicators judge debates. “We did find evidence that judges are not “gender blind”, they display consistent preferences for one gender or the other, implying that these preferences play a role to how speaker scores are assigned.”

Miss Cheng agreed with this. “The image of a good debater is a straight white man in a suit. For woman, when you speak you are considered shrill and are often not as assertive as men, so you sound less convincing. Adjudicators have unconscious bias which affect women. For people of colour, they are hurt by the assumption that you’re not fluent in English and therefore, less convincing.”

This belief isn’t held by all debaters. When asked about the discrimination faced by women and people of colour in the debating tournament, Miss Watson said “I personally don’t think there’s an exclusivity felt with people of colour in debating community but there are definitely a lot of white people in the circuit.”

Debating societies have implemented affirmative action policies to improve the inclusivity and diversity in their communities. Quotas for women, people of colour and less privileged individuals are imposed for teams sent to major tournaments.

“For Easters, 50% of the whole contingent must be non cis-male. Additionally, 1/3 of the top 3 teams must also be non cis-male. 30% of first-year novice debaters cannot have debated in the GPS, Archdale, ISDA, FED or Eastside competitions in their last two years of high school. For the Worlds Debating Championships, 1/3 of the debating contingent and 1/3 of the contingent overall must be non cis-male,” said Mr Balaton about the quotas implemented by UNSW Debating Society.

“There is a persistent muttering amongst some debaters about complaints over these quotas but this doesn’t counteract the positive work quotas do,” Mr Balaton said.

The quotas seem to be working.

Emily Kim wins Best Speaker of the 2019 Australian Intervarsity Championships.


After the struggles she faced in the community, Katherine’s team reached the grand finals of this year’s Easters tournament and was ranked 14th best novice speaker in Australia.

The tournament also proved historical with Emily Kim ranked as the best speaker in Australia. She is the first woman of color to do so.

Miss Kim, from Sydney University Debating Union, posted on Facebook afterwards, “Thank you for always making me feel like I am enough just as I am, to feel like enough is just as special to me as the chance to feel extraordinary.”

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