As a new semester dawns, students dribble back to St Andrews once again with high aspirations of how they will best use the opportunities Scotland’s finest university offers. “New semester, new me” is the resounding chorus.
After making their lazy attempts to apply for summer internships, people start to think about their CV fodder – they can’t trek around South East Asia again. With the biannual amnesty of fresh modules comes the affirmation that you’re going to get ahead with the reading for your tutorials. Suddenly, however, it is already week four and you are more behind than ever.
Then, soon enough, comes the inevitable onslaught of societal AGMs causing divisions, which make Megxit look like a pleasant family chat. But before all of that, there are well-intentioned, not-yet-hungover youths looking to find a new book club, start a new sport, or find a niche foodstuff on which to become an ex – pert among our wide range of societies. And, sure enough, a couple of people will stir from their slumber and venture to attend the opening Union Debating Society refreshers debate.
For those of the student body who have previously had the bright idea to attend a debate, they will of course be familiar with the satirical introduction to each of the public parleys. And no, I’m not referring to the clerk reading last week’s minutes in the style of Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker, but to the show-stopping opener: “Welcome to the St Andrews Union Debating Society: the oldest – and some might say finest – of its kind”. Similar to my DI1201 course – work: citation needed. For I am yet to hear anyone use that particular description.
In fact, casting a glance at last semester one may see that they are rolling back on the debating, with over a third of the events being ‘panel discussions’. But why is it so hard for the UDS to live up to its tagline? One of the biggest issues facing the UDS is a lack of creativity in its choice of debate topics. Even taking into account the inevitable end-of-semester tail-off, a look Facebook interest shows two motions standing out. This House Believes that China is a Threat to the West was the most popular motion in terms of Facebook engagement, with three-hundred people marking interested or going, while This House Regrets the Rise of Celebrity Feminists had a mere fifty-one clicks, only fifteen of whom were ‘going’.
Obviously, Facebook statistics are not necessarily definitive, but they are the best bell-weather of the mood towards the world’s finest debating chamber. That being said, a society which has, in my view, a miserable turnout is clearly not serving the best interests of its members, especially when thirteen committee members are obliged to turn up.
Personally, I see the situation as this, without a celebrity feminist there to bring in the punters, regretting celebrity feminists is a bit of a vapid premise. Conversely, China’s relationship with the West is both a prominent geopolitical and a very personal issue for many students at the University, and even without speakers is able to garner interest. Given that many of us go resolutely about our day without Lena Dunham featuring, it is not really going to appeal to many people. The motion is designed for the proposition to attack a celebrity feminist who is present, while the opposition must defend the use of their fame to taut a political belief. In the absence of such a guest speaker, if I wanted to incite a heated political debate about a woman in public life, I would just go into Pret and ask if Rebecca from Love Island should go for Callum or Connagh. I’m sure there’d be a higher turnout, and better speeches to boot.
The claim in some candidates’ manifestos last year that the UDS would attract more people based on the popularity of panel discussions is clearly a red herring. Last year, the UDS held its annual Queer Question Time in collaboration with SaintsLGBT+ and, owing to the proficiency of the latter, got interesting speakers and a higher turnout than the other events (which in turn had esteemed guests such as a childrens’s dj and entertainer from Preston, Geyser Frackman). However, it would seem that students would far prefer the Debating Society to host debates. The Halloween debate, without any guest speakers, had a similar level of interest to the LGBT+ and Mental Health panels, and greater level than the Brexit and Disability panels. These ‘panel discussions’ are important concerns for students, but perhaps would be better run through Student Services, perhaps, especially as that way they would be able to directly feed student concerns back into university policy.
But the debating society should not just serve as a public message board, but a petri dish nurturing a diversity of thought and a culture of civil discourse. It should cut across the issues of the day, be they cultural, political or academic, and encourage students to think and formulate effective arguments. So, as students return to St Andrews, I had hoped that the bubble surrounding debates selection had burst and that a genuinely enticing term card would be produced. I have my doubts as to how successful the cancel culture debate was without anyone there controversial enough to merit cancelling (unless one of the UDS’ student speakers will emerge from the shadows as our very own ‘Lozza’ Fox).
There are another two panels, with nothing more to go on than ‘feminism’ and ‘climate change’. The creative genius behind this seems to be someone lazily tossing darts at a dart – board consisting of Guardian op-ed categories. There are two opportunities for hack self-aggrandisement at the presidential and magistrand debates. Of the remaining four, Going to Mars shows an attempt at reaching to other student societies to widen the debating net, something which I am all in favour of. The right to die, Modi’s government , and Hong Kong independence finally start to show potential for interesting debates, but it has come at the cost of a year of treading water with bland panels and uninspiring motions. It doesn’t matter though I suppose, it’s only our money. Who knows, maybe we’ll even have a star speaker…