Top universities for debating
Never let a squabble get in the way of a good argument. And what good debating technique means is that you win complex arguments without descending into a row.
All of the universities listed below have a good reputation not just for winning debating championships but for running really useful training sessions for novice debaters.
University of Cambridge
‘This house believes that the LGBT movement should split up’ and ‘This house would design its own baby’. How do you debate these motions? Not just what are your opinions but what do you say and how do you structure and phrase things? How well do you engage with the topics and respond to other people’s arguments?
These are the skills taught by Cambridge’s senior debaters in its debating workshops. There are dedicated debating classes for freshers.
The Cambridge Union is the world’s oldest university debating society. Past speakers have included Sir Winston Churchill, Julian Assange and Sir Ian McKellen – plus Jerry Springer, who seems to do the rounds of debating societies.
University of Durham
As with other university debating unions, Durham invites famous politicians to be guest speakers. It’s also invited Rory Bremner, who impersonates them.
With over 3,000 members and 700 speakers it’s one of the larger debating societies in the UK.
Quite rightly, Durham’s union takes its business seriously and publishes what are almost manifestos in terms of the difficult contemporary issues it wishes to tackle. Top of the list recently has been the future of Europe and of the Middle East, looking at things not only from a Western perspective but through the eyes of Middle Eastern countries and Russia. Debates about gender issues also feature prominently.
But it’s not all heavyweight discussion. Social functions play a big role in most university debating unions and Durham’s is no exception. Members should expect the likes of vintage fancy dress parties and drinks in the garden.
University of Oxford
Founded in 1823, the Oxford Union is the UK debating society which gets the greatest media coverage. It’s the one where US presidents and the Dalai Lama (and Johnny Depp) drop by to hold forth and whose hallowed walls – if they could talk – would speak of past sounds and fury as impassioned voices debated pacifism or votes for women.
Thursday night’s formal debates are bookended by 45-minute informal ones where anyone can join in – and also by the debate dinner before and president’s drinks after. Sunday evening sees debating workshops. Typical topics for motions might be to do with sex workers and the law, Vladimir Putin, the EU, wearing of the red poppy, China’s power, Rupert Murdoch, the use of drones, competitive sports and God.
The Oxford Union works hard scheduling socials, debates, speakers’ addresses and panel discussions. It has won debating championships at both European and world levels.
LSE Students' Union (LSESU) used to have a reputation as an intellectual bastion of the political left. But that’s not always true these days and whatever your political persuasion, LSESU Debate will encourage you to consider opinions across the whole of the political spectrum. And left-field motions as well as left-of-centre motions are in the debating mix. The debating union has been known to have a Harry Potter themed debate or a Valentine’s debate where you publically dispute with someone you fancy. Sounds fun – or scary?
LSESU Debate is among the oldest societies at the London School of Economics and notches up successes nationally and internationally.
Its training resources are really good, particularly its PowerPoint slides for novice debaters. The union also organises a Novice Cup for students who are new to debating using the British Parliamentary model.
University of Manchester
The way Manchester’s debating union trains novice debaters is through seminars on debating techniques followed by practising in small groups without a full auditorium of onlookers scrutinising your every word and action.
You’re also shown how to play devil’s advocate, looking at an argument from other points of view and debating in favour of views you disagree with. The union says: ‘Part of the purpose of debating is to teach you how to perceive arguments from angles that you may not have previously considered: a benefit to any future profession and life in general.’
Like many other university debating societies, Manchester’s works with local state schools helping to train school children to debate. And it hosts an inter-school debating championship.
Of course, the union debates the great issues of our times. But it also has room for fun. Its most recent Christmas motion was: ‘This house would liberate elves’.