Debating at Oxford University

Date of Publication: 18 April 2017

Debate and discussion are at the heart of the teaching system at Oxford, with students learning not only from lectures, practicals and seminars, but also from small group tutorials. In these sessions students are asked to present arguments, debate with each other and defend their ideas from their tutors for over an hour in what is generally considered the most important part of an Oxford education. It’s hardly surprising therefore that many students take their debating outside of the classroom, and spend their spare time debating either in one of the many political societies or at the Oxford Union: the university’s dedicated debating society.

The chamber at the Oxford Union

The union has played host to a plethora of world leaders, philosophers, activists and even the occasional celebrity over its 194 year history, and hosts weekly debates on motions both timeless and modern. For example last year the union played host to Nigel Farage and Nick Clegg as they debated whether or not Britain should remain in the European Union, while in 1933 the union argued over the motion ‘This House will in no circumstances fight for its King and Country’ in the build up to World War II.

In these debates it is a tradition that teams are composed of both invited guests and students, and they also involve a floor debate in which members are invited to ask questions directly to speakers. In this way, students are able to debate issues of the day directly with the politicians involved in making these decisions, and it is no surprise that a huge number of politicians, both British and international have cut their teeth arguing in the union’s famous chamber.

Inter-university debating is also a popular activity at Oxford, with teams regularly reaching the finals of national, European and world-wide competitions. There is even a yearly medical ethics varsity debate, which Oxford won this year: arguing that “This house regrets the rise of direct to consumer genetic testing”.

However, besides these formal examples of debating, it is also developed as a skill through an Oxford education. The ability to synthesise an argument from reading a variety of sources, present that to another student or a tutor and then defend it from questions is developed through both the tutorial system and seminar discussions. Whether that skill is then used in formal competitive debating or in a subsequent career, it remains transferrable and useful for life.

Oxford Summer Courses host regular debate nights as part of the courses, with students debating topics as varied as the legalisation of drugs, the part time occupations of politicians and the storage of DNA records by the state. Using a similar format to the Union students present their arguments and answer questions in a floor debate, before winners are chosen by a vote and a panel of staff judges. It’s normally a great chance to get stuck into one of Oxford’s favourite activities and to both learn from and discuss with other students from around the world.

Hone your debating skills on our Law , International Relations and Politics and Politics courses!

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