The St Andrews Union Debating Society is one of the most quintessential St Andrews societies and can trace its origins back to the Age of Enlightenment. At this point, it was known as the Literary Society. The society we currently know came into existence almost a century ago, when the Literary Society merged with the Classical Society.
Today, the society is a subcommittee of the Students’ Association, which means that all matriculated students are members, public debates are free, and all are encouraged to participate. The Debating Society prides itself on being accessible to students and differs greatly from most university debating societies in that it doesn’t charge large lifetime membership fees.
The Debating Society has, according to President Ruairidh Ferguson, “gone from strength to strength” in recent years.
One specific accolade was winning the 2015 European University Debating Championships, making St Andrews the only Scottish university to achieve this title.
But what is the society all about? As the name might suggest, the Debating Society focuses on debates and participates in both competitive and public debates.
In competitive debates, the British Parliamentary format is used.
According to Mr Ferguson, “part of the thrill involved in competitive debating is that speakers are designated a side on a debate (regardless of their personal preferences) and only given fifteen minutes to prepare their seven-minute speeches. At first this may appear daunting, but it’s a unrivalled opportunity to develop your critical reasoning skills.”
Public debates, on the other hand, are more casual and use a looser interpretation of the British Parliamentary style that is infused with unique St Andrews traditions.
Hallmarks of these debates include the clerk of the house doing an impression before each weekly debate and, more often than not, being subsequently interrupted with a point and counterpoint.
Debate topics vary week-to-week, but the annual debate “This House Has No Faith in Her Majesty’s Government” is always a big draw. It continually includes high-profile politicians and generates large student turnout.
This year, attendees included Ian Murray, former shadow secretary of state for Scotland, and Stephen Gethins MP, representative for Northeast Fife in the UK Parliament.
Mr Ferguson said that “This House Believes that Israel is a Force for Good in the Middle East” was his favorite debate of the year.
He remarked, “[While it] was certainly a contentious topic, the speeches from the audience were well-informed and respectful despite the high passions in the room.”
The debate, held in Lower Parliament Hall, reached its full capacity of 140 individuals, and attendees included Michael Freeman, counsellor for civil society affairs at the Israeli Embassy in London, and Arthur Goodman, a member of the executive committee of Jews for Justice for Palestinians.
Besides being a hallmark of the St Andrean experience, the Debating Society is one of the most socially active societies on campus.
They regularly hold events in cooperation with other societies, as well as themed socials, weekly debates, and training sessions. According to Mr Ferguson, the society is a great way “to meet a cross section of students from around the University.”
Not only is the St Andrews Union Debating Society a great way to socialise, it also provides an unparamounted opportunity to gain valuable skills. For instance, public speaking capabilities can be greatly enhanced through active participation in debates.
The society holds weekly training sessions to help students overcome the common fear of public speaking. These sessions give students the opportunity to artfully communicate their points in a confident, self-assured manner.
If greatly enhanced public speaking skills are not enough to draw you into the Debating Society, then perhaps the possibility of practicing patience and openness will. Because students are entered into competitions as teams, these two abilities are a requirement for success.
At first, the intricacies of the Debating Society appear complex, but Mr Ferguson explained that the inner-workings of the society are not as mysterious as they seem.
He currently serves as Debate Society convener, often called the president, and is a member of the Student Services Council (SSC). The president is responsible for the general management of the Debating Society and overseeing board meetings. He or she also acts as chairman during the society’s formal debates.
Finally, it is the duty of the president to arrange the attendance of high-quality speakers, a crucial element that contributes to the popularity and longevity of the Debating Society.
The Debating Society is also run by the Board of Ten, a committee that facilitates the organisation and general management of the society. The Board of Ten assists in the various activities put forth by the society each academic year.
They are elected at the Debating Society’s annual AGM. Each member of the Board of Ten has a specific role within the society that contributes to its continued success.
One position of particular note is the internal secretary. Their role is to organise the debates held at Lower Parliament Hall, as well as the two internal debate competitions that the society annually hosts. These internal competitions are called the Inter-Residential and Maidens competition.
Another integral position is the serjeant-at-arms. They sit to the right of the president during formal debates and are responsible for the safety of the president at this time. They are prepared to carry out this duty by arming themselves with the Debating Society’s sword, which is named Bessie. The serjeant-at-arms also manages alumni relations, weekly order papers, and apparel orders.
Inter-varsity secretary, chief whips, communications secretary, schools secretary, socials secretary, and the clerk are also roles necessary for the success of the Debating Society.
Some responsibilities of these positions include conducting weekly training sessions, publicising events, planning socials, and recording meeting minutes.
Besides the president and the Board of Ten, the treasurer, who is selected by interview, plays an important role. They are responsible for the society’s finances and sponsorships.
For any students who wish to get involved with the Debating Society, Wednesday and Sunday trainings and public debates are an optimal opportunity.
Wednesday training sessions occur weekly in Society Room A of the Union from 2 to 5 pm. All students, whether seasoned pros or utter novices, are welcome to join.
On the topic of Wednesday training sessions, Mr Ferguson urges students to come along, “as debating is a fantastic way to improve confidence as a speaker even if you do not wish to debate competitively.”
Sunday training sessions are typically for more advanced debaters with the aim of competitive competition.
Mr Ferguson states that they are “a great way to meet new people from across the UK (and beyond), as well as hone debating skills.”
Finally, public debates provide a fun, interactive way to get involved in discussion of certain topics.
The Debating Society is one of the oldest societies in St Andrews. It is also innovative and dynamic, consistently addressing pressing current affairs, actively engaging students, and imparting valuable skills upon those who participate.