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Up for debate

Hannah Ryan and Felix Donovan on the privilege that permeates USyd debating.


Over the last few years, one of Sydney’s most successful debaters has given a seminar on liberty to debating’s new recruits towards the start of first semester. He describes the difference between negative liberty (the freedom from interference) and positive liberty (the capacity to enjoy that freedom). There’s an anecdotal question he asks every year: If you cannot afford a meal at Quay restaurant in Sydney – and trust me, look it up, you can’t – are you still free to eat at Quay?

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Debating is not like any society in the University of Sydney Union (USU). Instead of an unpaid president, the program is managed by a student Director of Debates (DoD) who receives a $5,000 annual honorarium, more than the compensation of most Board Directors. The DoD is assisted by a full-time staff member and a Debates Committee, made up of students and the USU Treasurer.

Unlike other groups who have to contend with the regulations of the USU’s Clubs & Societies program, debating’s funding is not contingent on the size of its membership. In 2013, the Debates program received $330,208 in Student Services and Amenities Fee (SSAF) funding from the University. To put this in context, this is almost seven times the budget of UNSW’s DebSoc, and more than seven times the budget of the 2,500-member Sydney Arts Students Society.

Exactly where the money goes is unclear. USU President Hannah Morris declined to share the Debates budget with Honi or speak about the priorities within that budget. As the President is the USU’s official spokesperson, neither the DoD nor the staff members who are involved with debating were able to comment.

A leaked copy of the 2014 debating budget revealed only $135,320 had been allocated. The most significant outlay was on tournament registration, amounting to $44,820. The USU sends teams and adjudicators internationally to the World Universities Debating Championships (Worlds) and the Australasian Intervarsity Debating Championships (Australs) every year, funding registration, accommodation and flights. The budget does not indicate how much is spent on the famously generous bar tab at the Royal every Wednesday night.

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Clearly Debates has been singled out as a special and important activity by the USU. The funding it receives is equivalent to 1,210 people’s compulsory SSAF fees, or the revenue from 4,403 ACCESS cards.

Morris referred Honi back to the history books in telling us why the USU values debating. “The USU was founded as a debating institution in 1874 and the Debates Program is significant to us as it is an important part of our history,” she explained.

A spokeswoman for the University attributed the University’s support of debating through its SSAF allocation to the fact that debating “enables students to improve their public speaking and debating skills”, and to USU debating’s international standing.

The success of Sydney’s debaters benefits the University’s reputation and recruitment. USyd is currently ranked first in the world, with Oxford in second. This reputation – not only advertised in rankings but also in the profiles of people like alumni former Womens champion Naomi Hart and former USU Board Director and debater Melissa Brooks in USyd’s marketing material – attracts ambitious high school debaters to USyd.

Debaters argue, as they are wont to do, that their hobby is worth the money. “Debating is fundamentally an activity that promotes rationality, critical thinking and learning about the world around you,” says 2014 Worlds grand finalist Paul Karp. The sponsorship of tournament registration and travel is seen as vital to the debating program, to ensure that access to the benefits of high-level debating is based on merit and not wealth. Paul argues against a user-pays approach. “That’s a system where the most vibrant and interesting activities at university wither and can only be accessed by cashed-up elites,” he says.

Former Worlds competitor Eleanor Gordon-Smith adds that international intervarsity debating tournaments are not just about skills, but are also “recruiting grounds for law firms and consultancy groups.” If these were only accessible for rich students, she tells Honi, we’d have “snowballed the problem” of entrenched privilege.

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“But my concern kicks in,” she continues, “when we give the same amount of funding to all debaters regardless of their own capacity to buy flights.”

The USU has a generous but not particularly discerning hand when it comes to the  debating chequebook. Alexi Polden, who has debated at Easters for USyd, told us that “the vast majority of students in debating at Uni come from private or at least selective schools … debating is certainly particularly privileged.”

That seems to bear some truth. Of the six debaters that the USU sent to this year’s Chennai Worlds, five came from elite private schools.

In part, as Alexi notes, it would be unfair to lay the blame for that at the feet of the USU. USyd debating is not “actively discriminatory”, says Alexi, and its inequities are “more a symptom of the inequalities in the education”. A student from an elite private or selective school who was provided with well paid coaches and adjudicators is likely to do better in university debating and be better placed to take advantage of the USU’s financial support.

And yet, the funding priorities of debating budget seem to benefit those at the top. If you were selected to debate for the USU at Chennai, you got hit up with $2000 for flights. Berlin Worlds, the year before, $2500. Last year’s Australs, in Malaysia, $800. Wellington Australs, 2012, $420. Korea Australs, 2011, $900.

Australs and Worlds teams are filled with experienced debaters, people who’ve likely debated at those same tournaments for years before that. Four of the six debaters who went to Worlds in Chennai hung out together in Berlin too; all six had been in Malaysia midway through the year.

Melissa Brooks, a Board Director and debater at USyd five years ago told Honi that “some people doing five or six year degrees would have received over $20k in debates scholarships”.

If you were selected to debate at Easters in Melbourne in two weeks time, you received nothing for flights or petrol. The same is true for the Easters last year, and the one before that. Easters is a tournament for debating beginners, known as novices.

If you wanted to go to USyd’s internal novice-only tournament, Grand Slam – billed as “a great place to start your university debating career” – you were expected to pay $40 for the pleasure. That’s unlikely to mean your next bank statement is printed in red ink, but for people needing to take weekend shifts off to debate it’s an added disincentive.

Debating prioritises sending the best people to the most prestigious tournaments. It’s something that Melissa takes issue with. “It’s students’ money being spent and I do think there’s an issue with how much goes on something that is unavoidably, because of its competitive nature, a pretty closed shop.”

It’s not as though nothing could be done. “In a system of finite resources it seems obvious that you should only get union funding if that funding is what determines whether you can afford to go,” Eleanor says. Asked if they were considering something like means tests or strict limits on how many flights to Europe one debater can claim, the USU told us it was business as usual this year for the debating budget but, as always, “the USU constantly strives to make our programs as accessible to as many students as possible”.

Melissa told us that she raised means tested debate funding “quite a few times with different people and there was huge resistance.”

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Every year, the Nozicks and the Gibbses fight over whether an individual, free to walk into Quay, able to order but without the money for foie gras and a glass of Moët, is actually at liberty to eat at the restaurant.

And that’s where the conversation about wealth is left in USyd debating: in the abstract.