Culture //

Mass debating pay

Ever wondered why your friends that are debating coaches get payed so much? Harry Stratton tells us why

Some coaches urge on their teams with acid put-downs; others try to encourage them with honeyed praise. One of my high school debating coaches was a little different. Someday, he would say, our weekly sacrifice of Friday nights and social respectability would be rewarded with what he only ever referred to as the “package”. His eyes growing starry with dollar signs, he would describe debating coaching’s genius hourly rates. Perhaps if we pushed ourselves we might even land a job at King’s, where the health insurance was all-inclusive and the CabCharge vouchers seemed to be thrown around like confetti. The included parking space was all the more attractive precisely because none of us – coach included – could drive.

David was almost certainly exaggerating when he described Parramatta’s fertile pastures, but the striking thing is that he can’t have been exaggerating by much. Bluntly, the debating economy is absurd. An entry-level coach at a selective school that runs a comparatively tight financial ship, such as Sydney Girls High, can expect to be paid somewhere in the region of $45 to $50 an hour. The even more ridiculous thing is that this is considered selling oneself short. The more privileged and private the school, the more extravagant the wages, until exclusive GPS schools like Scots and Shore are reputed to pay more than $120 an hour to some of their coaches, with one or two even rumoured to pay coaches on an annual retainer well into five figures for five hours’ work a week.

How did the market decide that teaching small children to be sophists – which many coaches sheepishly admit they’d do for free – should be valued at more than six times the minimum wage? Part of the reason lies in the fact that some of these schools simply have an awful lot of cash to throw around, but even at the richest schools sports coaches are paid at much more reasonable rates of around $20 an hour. Moreover, when there are comparative few schools which can devote so much money and effort to debating (and many devote even more effort to concealing their more profligate pay rates, even from their own junior coaches), you would assume that debating would be an employer’s market. Part of it comes from multiple concurrent debating competitions each seeking coaches and adjudicators, and fierce competition from law firms who also believe that bullshitting is an employable skill, but neither of these factors explain why Sydney’s debating coaches should be paid about two times the wage of their Melbourne equivalents.

The truth is that – despite being an overwhelmingly pro-market group of people, with a union (NSWDU) operating exclusively as a front organisation for the training of the state team and the purchase of yum cha – the debating economy is effectively controlled by a cartel of “co-ordinating coaches”, themselves paid up to $200 an hour. Since debating is a “specialist” activity, these co-ordinators make the decision to hire or fire with minimal school oversight, meaning that the market for this type of labour is limited to those who know particular co-ordinators in the very small and embarrassingly incestuous debating community. This cartel does not in any way set out to be as such. While undoubtedly there is a degree of nepotism, for co-ordinators overwhelmingly see themselves as choosing the coaches best able to win debates, and adjudicators often prove them right against schools with more limited budgets. But there lies the problem. Since the same community of current and former coaches are also employed to decide what is good and bad debating, the labyrinthine set of standards they create to mirror the community’s favourite mannerisms effectively lock those not “in the know” out of the market. It is from here that several bizarre fads of high school debating arise, including an odd fascination with libertarianism and the weirdly specific verbal crutch “problematic”, now stripped of all subtlety and life to simply mean “bad”. Moreover, since adjudicator’s pay rates rise in lockstep with those paid to coaches, it is in their interest to reduce the labour supply by maintaining those norms.

What are the results of this unconscious cartel? The first is that schools which are unable to pay such exorbitant rates are simply priced out of the competition, and thus competitions are won – each and every year – by the schools able to pay for the best coaches. (Even in public school competitions, elite inner-city selectives like Fort Street and Sydney Boys receive an unfair advantage, since their predominantly higher-SES parents are better able to pay debating subscriptions and thus afford debating’s wages.) The second is that a terrifying amount of money is spent on supporting coaches’ expensive habits, money that in the case of worse-off private and public schools could almost certainly be better spent improving facilities and reducing class sizes.

Markets are highly efficient at catering to consumer demand. Unfortunately, when that demand is culturally conditioned by the desires of the dominant economic force, it distorts prices to the point where there may as well not be a market at all.