Consider the following. A king prawn and mango salad. Scallops served with foie gras. Two twelve-ounce fillet steaks, three bottles of wine, two shots of baileys and four chocolate-orange cheesecakes. A boozy meal for two at a Kate Kennedy get-together, you may surmise? But no, this smorgasbord of decadent delicacies, costing in excess of one hundred and twenty pounds, was the sum total of the food and drink purchased for me, Matthew Leighton, in exchange for my performance in exactly two University Debating Society events over the course of 2018.
Fancy that! A person whose only claim to fame was embarrassing himself on a seldom-watched quiz show, who had no expertise or even strong desire to take part in a public debate, was able to earn a wage in excess of sixty pounds an hour, from a society funded almost entirely out of your tuition fees. If I got paid that much in a full-time job, I’d be making almost as much as Sally Mapstone.
Aside from the very pertinent question of why I was chosen to speak at all, we must ask, ‘is spending one hundred and twenty pounds feeding an already podgy bloke good value for students?’ If what I was told was true and my meals were indeed purchased with Union Debating Society funds, then the obvious answer is no. The waste doesn’t end there, with socials and AGMs characterised by large amounts of union-funded booze and non-itemised receipts. Small wonder then, why the UDS is ‘skint’ and can’t afford to spend the money on attracting speakers who aren’t just students who like a free meal.
Ask yourself, when was the last time the UDS got a speaker down that was really well-known? No, Willie Rennie doesn’t count. Then have a peer over the Oxford Union’s Youtube channel; even if you’d been living in deepest darkest Herefordshire like me for your whole life, you’d still see a plethora of frankly huge names; Stephen Fry, Sepp Blatter, Jordan Peterson, the list goes on and on. Yeah sure, we don’t enjoy the geographical advantages which they do, but don’t tell me that we can’t afford good speakers whilst I neck my ninth glass of claret.
Even if we look past the supposed ‘lack of money’, we can see real, systemic problems which plague the UDS and stop people from going. I have been asked to recommend speakers for debates less than eighteen hours before they were due to take place. How can anyone, let alone busy students with little public speaking experience, be expected to produce a quality speech which challenges mainstream thought in such a short space of time? The short answer is that they can’t. This naturally produces the dry, dull, obvious debates which are churned out in Lower Parliament Hall every Thursday, making even the most opinionated, no-life, Spectator- reading dweebs among us reluctant to step through their doors.
This problem is compounded by a simple lack of imagination or even effort by the UDS committee. The speakers and the debates are repeated all too often; the fact that someone as blatantly unqualified as me could be chosen twice in two months is testament to that. Scrolling through the timeline photos of the debating society paints a picture more akin to a close group of friend’s depressing holiday photos than a compelling, exciting series of events. This is compounded by the social life of debating; it’s frankly unacceptable that a society with over 8,000 members should be holding poorly-advertised social events at a tiny flat in the Badlands. Complain again about money all you want, but the back of the Whey Pat is free to book.
Student apathy to debating is only made worse by the influence of competitive debating over public debates. Yes, we do competitive debating very well, but my word is it dull. The point scoring, rapid-speaking style of these speeches is simply too boring to excite students, and increase attendances. Real debates should show humour, eloquence, and most importantly, passion for the subject in question, attributes which are sadly all too rare under the current administration. This also serves as a huge money sink, with yet more of our tuition fees being spent on flying students all over the globe to have boring arguments. Consider that more people take part in and enjoy Quidditch than competitive debating; would you be happy to fork out five hundred quid every week to see seven sweaty blokes with sticks between their legs throw dodgeballs through hoops? Then why burn money on something that isn’t even as popular?
If we are to produce good value for students, we must stop wasting money, stop wasting time, and remember that debate is something supposed to valued and defended as a sacred right, rather than a fun activity that looks good on your CV. The priorities of the University Debating Society should be to excite, engage, and enrich the lives of students, and not to buy me dinner.
The next president of the University Debating Society must present well-known, controversial speakers, rather than plucking people like me off the street. The vast majority of the budget has to be redistributed to match the quality of speakers which visit other elite universities.
You cannot expect students to show up to poorly run, poorly conceived debates between two second year history students who don’t really care about the subject in hand. It’s only by getting big names into Lower Parliament Hall that student engagement will rise. to paraphrase Field of
Dreams, ‘Build it and they will come’.
We must remember that we are St Andrews. We are hands down the best University in Scotland. We should be competing with the Oxford Union, not Madras debating club, and we should damn well act like it.