Disclaimer: Pranay Jha has previously coached both for private schools and private debating companies.
A few years ago, it was common to see big-shot USyd debaters flash hundred-dollar bills on any given Wednesday, as they offered to buy round after round of drinks at Flodge. Debaters, unlike many of their peers, could quite easily afford to move into the Inner West at a young age, and remain untroubled by rising costs of living. Overall, being a university debater (or more specifically, an elite university debater) gave rise to a comparatively luxurious life. Today, while university debaters certainly seem less flashy, the amount of green and yellow bills tucked neatly into their wallet remains unchanged.
It is no secret that the world of debating coaching is rather lucrative. As elite schools have begun to take the activity more seriously, demand for high-quality coaches has increased at a rate incommensurate to their supply. Given this, schools with deep pockets have been willing to dish out exorbitant rates for coaches (close to an hourly rate of $100 in many cases). Essentially this means that a few hours of coaching students on a Friday night will allow a university debater to lead a relatively comfortable student life.
However, the main source of income for many debaters doesn’t actually come from Sydney’s grossly overfunded private schools. Rather, many debaters tend to earn the real, big dollars working long shifts on weekends for private coaching companies. And while private and selective school debating programs deserve the criticism Honi has previously levelled at them, it seems the private coaching industry is equally worthy of our examination.
At a glance, private debating coaching seems quite worthwhile. It gives students whose schools don’t have developed debating programs an opportunity to compete in an activity traditionally reserved for the upper echelons of society. In many instances, those students come from Non-English speaking and/or migrant backgrounds, and have parents who have likely faced hardships and discrimination on the basis of their English speaking skills. Given that, activities like debating and public speaking, in which parents can see their kids deliver speeches with little preparation are justly considered to be empowering. Additionally, success in the activity is highly regarded by university selection committees and looks favourable for students seeking to apply for scholarships to study abroad. Subsequently, parents could be forgiven for believing that doing private debating coaching will allow their kids to attain some kind of upward social mobility in the future.
Debating coaching companies are certainly not oblivious to the aforementioned desires of parents. In many cases, they proudly boast the achievements of their tutors and note that many of them are studying at prestigious universities around the world. In terms of debating, parents are told their children will learn critical thinking and discuss issues about economics, international affairs and domestic politics. None of this seems very problematic — except for the fact that it is incredibly misleading.
The primary issue with debating coaching is that the coaches, albeit highly qualified, have little incentive to expend a lot of effort into their teaching. Having spoken to numerous coaches, private, debating coaching appears to be taken far less seriously than coaching at schools. Part of this may be explained by the fact that in private coaching, there is no competition or discernible end goal for coaches and students to work towards. Given most coaches have predominantly engaged in debating as a competitive exercise, the absence of “winners and losers” removes a degree of emotional investment from the outcome of their coaching.
A highly successful university debater who spent a year working for a private debating coaching company spoke to the difference in attitudes between school shifts and coaching on weekends. The debater, who wished not to be named, told Honi, “because it was on the weekend it psychologically felt like less of a serious job… the metric for improvement [was] vague.” They did, however, note that at least to some extent, private debating coaching was useful.
Without a formal competition for students there isn’t much accountability for coaches. When a team is consistently losing debates in a school competition, there is a clear impetus to assess and reformulate coaching methods or change the team’s coach. By contrast, in private coaching where the students do not necessarily even participate in debating back at school, there seems to be no method of tangibly tracking the progress a coach has made with their class.
The absence of an incentive to win debates also appears to operate on a student, perhaps influencing them to take the weekend coaching less seriously. Emma*, a current USyd Debater and private debating coach, told Honi, “I think it’s not very useful for kids, mostly because coaches are lazy but also kids don’t really give a shit.”
Naturally, there are bound to be coaches who will work hard regardless of the above factors. There will also be children who find themselves improving their public speaking skills as they continue to go to weekend classes. Ultimately, however, it appears that regardless of whether a coach works hard or does nothing, there will always be an envelope filled with cash awaiting them.
Beyond the attitudes of coaches and students, the conditions in private coaching colleges are not conducive to creating a productive learning environment. Classes for both juniors and seniors tend to be three hours long. While these classes give students an opportunity to participate in a proper debate, in a lot of instances they simply don’t seem to have the attention span to focus for that long. This means that even where coaches are putting effort into their classes, it is quite difficult for students to absorb the information they’re receiving.
Additionally, when children are stuck in a classroom for hours and the focus is purely on improving debating, they often complain about classes being monotonous. In some situations, this causes parents to pull their children out of private coaching classes. Subsequently, those in charge of coaching colleges have an incentive to make classes “fun” in ways that aren’t necessarily productive for debating or public speaking. Emma recounts her employers complaining about “how previous coaches had been too boring,” when initially hiring her. She says that she “naively started off trying to be good but the kids only wanted to play hangman so eventually succumbed.” Various other coaches described their job as “glorified babysitting” as opposed to actual coaching.
The suffocating sense of boredom associated with private debating coaching isn’t limited to students. Coaches described having to work 6-hour shifts, in cramped and poorly lit office spaces with no breaks. This often means that even the most well-intentioned coaches struggle to make it through an entire shift without losing interest.
Of course, it’s difficult to feel much sympathy for debaters who are earning up to $120 an hour for work that, in the grand scheme of things, isn’t too arduous. However, a closer inspection at the employment contracts (or lack thereof) for debating coaches may reveal other significant issues in the private debating coaching industry. None of the coaches Honi spoke to had been offered a contract or received payslips for their work. An ex-USyd debater told Honi there was “no real discussion about contract [sic], the person just showed me my room and gave me cash.” This seemed to be the case for most debaters working in private debating coaching.
The absence of legitimate employment contracts means that coaches receive functionally no protections in relation to unfair dismissals, leave requests or superannuation. Although many coaches are elite university debaters who also coach students at high schools, for anyone relying on private debating coaching as a regular source of income, these conditions are highly worrying.
Paying cash-in-hand without payslips, avoiding withholding tax from employees and paying incorrect superannuation all seem to be common practices in the private debating coaching industry. Such practices are also all examples of cases where concerns about tax evasion may be raised, as provided by the Australian Taxation Office.
The astute debater would likely question what the comparative is. Although private debating coaching has its problems, at least it provides some opportunity for children whose schools aren’t wealthy or well funded to debate. A very obvious solution would be to provide greater funding to state schools so that they can provide extra-curricular activities, such as debating, to their students. This would remove the need for parents to seek external private coaching for their children. However, in the absence of such reform, debating colleges can quite easily restructure class sizes, class durations and introduce greater accountability for their coaches. This may require debating companies to forego some profit. However, it would also mean that well-intentioned and hardworking parents aren’t sacrificing their income for a service that ultimately delivers their children little benefits, if any.