University of St Andrews Union Debating Society

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search
The University of St Andrews Union Debating Society
Logo of St. Andrews Union debating society.png
The crest of the Union Debating Society
Motto Pro Amicitia Et Litteris
(For friendship and learning)
Formation 1794
Type Student debating society
Headquarters St Andrews, Scotland
  • Students’ Association
    St Mary’s Place
    St Andrews
    KY16 9UZ
Matthew Singer
Parent organization
University of St Andrews
Affiliations World Universities Debating Council
University of St Andrews Students' Association

The University of St Andrews Union Debating Society is a student debating society at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. Tracing its origins back to 1794 and established in 1890, it is one of the oldest debating societies of its kind in the English-speaking world.[1] It also holds weekly public debates in the Lower Parliament Hall, which are free and open to all students.

In 2015, the society became the first in Scotland to win the European Universities Debating Championship.



The origins of the University of St Andrews Debating Society can be traced to the formation in 1794 of the university Literary Society. However the society suffered from a lack of sufficient funding, so much so that apart from joining and annual fees, much of the Society’s income came from the imposition of fees for lateness, absence, or the use of 'improper language'. At this stage of its history, the Literary Society operated under a strange mixture of egalitarianism and exclusiveness. Initially, there was no president of the Society and meetings were chaired by each member in rotation. The only distinct posts allowed were that of Secretary and Treasurer. In addition, all decisions were taken collectively by the Society as a whole. However, membership was limited to twenty-five students, was strictly by election, and no 'strangers' were permitted to attend debates. In 1846, The Classical Society, a rival debating society, was re-established and was soon vying with the Literary Society for the attention of the student body. However, it soon became apparent that there were simply not enough students at the university to justify the existence of two debating societies and consequently in 1890 the Classical Society and Literary Society merged to form the Union Debating Society.


The acquisition of James Crichton's House by the fledgling Students' Union afforded the Society a permanent home, although the two organisations had no official ties. This, and the fact that the Union Debating Society now had over seventy members (a third of the total student population), gave the Society renewed confidence and a greater importance than ever before in the lives of students.

In 1898 the Society decided to form Debates Board, in order to manage the running of the society, it consisted of an honorary president, two honorary vice-presidents, a secretary, a treasurer, a "general committee" of four members, a 'College Echoes' Reporting Committee, and a Debates Committee of four members. In 1910 the post of president of the Union Debating Society was created. In 1925 the Union Debating Society agreed to be affiliated to the Students' Union, and all matriculated students of the university would be members. The chair of the Union Debating Society would be elected as the Union Convenor of Debates, and debating would be done completely under the auspices of the Students' Union. The Debates Board ceased to exist, and the title of 'President of the Union Debating Society' was kept purely as a courtesy title.

In 1932 the society elected to re-create the Debates Board, in order to regain some independence from the Students' Union. It was to consist of the Convenor of Debates and two clerks to the house. During this period debates were held in the council chamber of the Men’s Students' Union, apart from some large-scale events, which were held in the Union Diner.

The Union Debating Society hold weekly debates in Lower Parliament Hall

In the 1970s, the move of the Students' Union from its original home to a new purpose built building provided the Union Debating Society with the opportunity to make a move of its own. The Convenor of Debates took the opportunity to move debates to Lower College Hall in St Salvator's Quadrangle, and then to Lower Parliament Hall in St Mary's Quadrangle.

This physical move away from the Students' Union was accompanied by an organisational one. In 1979, the society decided to change the Debating Sub-Committee into the 'Debating Board of Ten'. This new sub-committee comprised the convenor, chairman of ways and means, sergeant-at-arms, clerk to the house, treasurer, steward, two ordinary members, union president, and a further representative from the Union Committee. The president would continue to be elected as the convenor of debates, but the Board of Ten would be elected in an annual general meeting of the Union Debating Society.

The society today[edit]

Today the Union Debating Society continues to fulfill its primary mission of holding regular debates in Lower Parliament Hall,. These currently occur on a weekly basis during term time. In recent years turnout at the Society's debates has been good, particularly for debates such as the annual Parliamentary Debate. All matriculated students and life members of the Students' Union are automatically members of the Union Debating Society.

The Union Debating Society has a highly successful Inter-Varsity debating team. Recent successes include reaching the final of the European Universities Debating Championships in 2007 and winning a number of domestic competitions. The Union Debating Society has also had teams reach the semi-finals of the 2007, 2008, 2012 and 2013 World Universities Debating Championships, with several alumni reaching the finals in 2013, and has also performed well in the John Smith Memorial Mace. At the Vienna 2015 European Championships, Alex Don and Ruairidh MacIntosh placed first and second respectively on the speaker tab and were the first team from a Scottish institution to win the competition.[2]


The Board of Ten are a committee composed solely of St Andrews students and has responsibility for the organisation and everyday running of the society. The positions on the board of ten are: the Convenor/President, Serjeant-at-Arms, Treasurer, Clerk to the House, Inter-Varsity Secretary, Internal Secretary, Chief Whip, Schools Secretary, Communications Secretary and Steward to the House. These positions are elected at the Society's AGM which takes place every March within one week of the University of St Andrews Students Association General Election. A Freshers' Representative position was added to the committee in 2012. The Board of Ten, which solely consists of older members of the society, appoints the Freshers' Representative in the early part of Michaelmas term. The position of Freshers' Representative is meant to represent the views and interests of students in their first year of studies.


The Society has a number of traditions, many going back decades or even centuries. At the start of a debate the convenor welcomes those gathered to the current session of 'the University of St Andrews Union Debating Society, the oldest and, some might say, the finest of its kind in the world' — this brings a resounding cheer of 'hear hear'.

At debates students wear academic gowns including the scarlet gowns of the United College, the black of St Mary's College, the black postgraduate gowns of St Leonard's College, or an appropriate graduate gown.[3][4][5]

On the basis that the Society has always claimed to have provided good value for money (unlike other student debating societies like the Oxford Union or Durham Union, both membership and attendance at debates are free to all students), when a monetary amount is mentioned in a speech, those attending the debate cry "How much?"; the sum is then repeated, to which the audience responds "That's cheap!". The minutes are read at the beginning of each debate, but inevitably someone would rather proceed to the main debate, and so raises a point of order, moving that the minutes be taken as read; another member rises in opposition to the motion. At this stage a vote is taken by 'oral acclamation' — the announcement of which is met with a cry of 'Oohh', and after a vote the convenor generally believes to be closer than is apparent to the rest of the House (who nearly always believe that the 'nays' have it, which would result in the minutes being read in full), the minutes are taken as read, and the convenor requested to 'resign' on the basis of having effectively overruled the House.

The society's motto is Pro Amicitia Et Litteris — 'for friendship and learning'. The Gaudeamus is sung at the end of each debate, as the Board of Ten and speakers process out of the chamber. The Society also owns a sword, affectionately known as Bessie, which is said to be used by the Sergeant at Arms to protect the authority of the speaker: in practice it symbolises the authority of the House, in the manner of a ceremonial mace.[6]

Notable Presidents[edit]

See also[edit]

  • Graham Stewart The Union Debating Society 1794–1990: A History of Debating at St Andrews University (D.C. Thomson)


  1. ^ "About us". Archived from the original on 19 October 2012. Retrieved 24 December 2012. 
  2. ^
  3. ^ Cooper, Jonathan C. (1 January 2010). "The Scarlet Gown: History and Development of Scottish Undergraduate Dress". Transactions of the Burgon Society. 10 (1). doi:10.4148/2475-7799.1082. ISSN 2475-7799. Retrieved 6 May 2017. 
  4. ^ "2012 | Black gowns introduced for students at St Andrews | University of St Andrews". 2 April 2012. Retrieved 6 May 2017. 
  5. ^ St Mary's College (5 September 2016). "Pre-Sess TT 1995/96". University of St Andrews. Retrieved 6 May 2017. For undergraduates in the M.Theol. and B.D. programmes the description of the appropriate gown is: Black stuff gown of knee length with short open sleeves and with violet cross of St Andrew (BCC 214 - Spectrum violet) on the left facing. 
  6. ^ Union Debating Society — Terms & Traditions.

External links[edit]