MDIA2003_19 MDIA2003_19_P1 Wed11.30 (2019)

The Secret World of University Debating: An Elitist Sport Questioned Over its Diversity and Inclusivity

For many debating is an obscure and unknown world filled with private school graduates. Hefty costs for training, travelling nation-wide for competitions and countless hours spent practicing one’s expertise, all for the sake of a heated argument. 

‘Should we legalise murder’ or ‘should we legalise the use of drones to kill rhino poaches’ are just some of the unconventional and sometimes confronting topics that Amelia, President of the Macquarie debating society, can remember.  

Many participants involved in debating acknowledge that it is comprised of private school graduates, and that there is most definitely a reason to question its morals around diversity and inclusivity.

The Universityof Sydney, one of Australia’s leading institutions to study world-wide, have begun to take affirmative action in order to remove the stigma surrounding debating tournaments and its elitist culture. 

Viran Weerasekera, who attended Barker College and participated in their debating team, currently sits on Sydney University’s debating panel, said that “the University of Sydney has programs where we set quotas for students who went to schools that don’t have any history of debating and public speaking”. 

Weerasekera said that this program allows for more diversity within the system and creates a more inclusive environment. He said that Barker College played a significant role in fashioning his interest in debating and therefore helped him pursue the activity since the beginning.

Weerasekera mentioned the reason for why there is such a great void between individuals who participate in debating: “public schools aren’t able to attract the best coaching talent, so their programs seem to be handicapped from the very beginning”. 

A student’s stance on debating is usually capped by financial strains as “most of the tournaments are on the weekend, meaning you would have to give up a weekend of work to go to those tournaments”, said Weerasekera.  

Jerson Balaton, President of the University of New South Wales debating society, agrees that the crux of the issue is surrounded by financial burdens. “The culture of debating is regrettable that it is exclusive to private schools”, said Balaton. 

In order to attend some of the major tournaments, societies require one to pay an entry fee. Weerasekera said, “the combination of that as well as debating not being promoted and really encouraged in school, means that this activity is exclusionary in that sense”. 

Leah Mercier, an executive member of the University of New South Wales debating society, unlike Weerasekera, did not attend private schooling. Mercier participated in the ‘Premier Debating Challenge’ once a year during high school, yet she still holds the same passion for the activity. 

Mercier described her previous debating experience as “limited” as “they didn’t have any coaching or assistance”, which is a problem that Weerasekera too mentioned. Mercier hopes that public school children can be given the same opportunity as those who attended a private school. “Debating is an easy activity to extend the opportunity to all schools, but it isn’t done enough”, said Mercier.  

Mercier said, “a lot of the better-quality competitions or more frequent competitions are only offered to private schools and it’s a bit of a shame” as it hinders the potential of children of a public school to progress and excel. 

Amelia Taylor, the President of the Macquarie debating society, provides a different perspective on the sport. Even though Taylor attended the private school of Roseville College, she said that debating was “not something that Roseville invested in”. 

Taylor said that Roseville graduates would be the ones to train the students, instead of university debating level coaches, which “limits the quality that you can get”. Similar to the admission process of getting involved in debating at public schools, Taylor described how her enrolment process wasn’t one of a competitive nature. 

Taylor said that the Macquarie debating society depicts a more of a balanced and diverse culture in comparison to other universities, however, she stated that the top three debaters did come from private school backgrounds.

Many top debaters have spoken about the biasness that occurs within the activity, which serves as a significant problem. Not only does this biasness apply to graduates of the public-school system but to women and people of colour.

“It is obviously a very male community, and there is definitely not only subconscious bias but also active discrimination against women in the debating community”, said Balaton. This discrimination also has an “exclusionary social effect against people of colour”, which has a negative impact on their attendance, said Balaton. 

Advancements have been made in terms of making the unique world of university debating more inclusive and diverse. Many different levels of competitions and debates that occur throughout Sydney have established quotas in order to help combat this active discrimination. 

For the Easters debate, both 50% of the debating contingent and 50% of the whole contingent, which includes the adjudicators, must be non-cis-male. For both Australs and Worlds debates, one third of the overall contingent must be non-cis-male. Additionally, for Australs one third of the top three teams must be comprised of people with colour. 

However, what seems to be the main problem within this elitist university debating culture is that “there is a lot of claiming to be progressive, but they are not actually progressive,” which leads to the question of will this issue ever be resolved, said Balaton.