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‘The Russians Are Friendly! And that's Coming from an American’

On April 2nd and 3rd, the Higher School of Economics held this year’s international student parliamentary debate tournament, HSE Open 2016. The tournament was a way for one American professor to get to know Russia, and the competition showed that students are capable of turning the art of debate into a real live performance. Not only do the students have excellent English, but they also think in a different language when it comes to politics and economics.

The tournament, which has now taken place for six years in a row, is organised by the HSE Parliamentary Debate Club. Since the organisers are not allowed to participate in the competition, HSE’s representatives were responsible for supervising the event and serving as members of a jury that would ultimately decide on the winners. Though they were not awarded prizes for debate, HSE students were still recognised for their hard work – undergraduate Nikolai Tor, for example, received an award for Best HSE Open 2016 Judge.

The main weapon for an HSE Open participant is confidence, but they also needed to know English for the tournament. The Russian students were from the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO), Moscow State University, Kutafin Moscow State Law University, the Russian Academy of Justice, the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, and Bauman Moscow State Technical University, and they were up against students from New York University’s branch campus in Abu Dhabi.

During the tournament, it often seemed like allof the students came from abroad – the Moscow students’ level of English was quite impressive. It is also worth noting that in February 2016, students from the HSE Debate Club made it through to the finals at the Manchester IV, a championship in Great Britain, in the Open category (native speaker level), becoming the first Russian team to do so in this category.

The topic that the jury decided on concerned human rights issues and read: ‘This House would put international peacekeepers in Nagorno-Karabakh and make it a non-state territory.’

The winner of the tournament was Megan Vincent from NYU Abu Dhabi. Megan can be praised not only for her eloquence and adherence to the rules, but also for the speed at which she is able to produce an argument. 

Debate Around the World

Student parliamentary debates, which have more than a 200-year history, are gradually spreading across the world. Nearly every university in Europe and the U.S. has its own debate club, and debate competitions take place in various languages all over the world. As for Moscow, MGIMO and HSE host international debate tournaments regularly.

The main competition in the world of debate is the World Universities Debating Championships (WUDC), which sees the participation of between 150 and 400 teams. This championship has been taking place in different cities since 1981 and is a very popular event – after all, debates were initially thought of as a public speaking platform, and their main goal is to engage an audience. This also explains why debates are dynamic, mobile, and completely accessible for audiences everywhere.

The world leader of student debate is the University of Sydney Union (USU), which has beat out Oxford for first place at the WUDC for the last three years in a row. Sydney also hosts the Australasian Women’s Debating Championship, which is interestingly enough only open to female debaters.  

Prestige Club

It is always considered prestigious to be a member of a university debate club. In England, for example, the trendsetter of the debate world, membership in a debate club can substantially raise one’s performance score, which is calculated for each student. Debaters are generally considered to be the intellectual elite, and history has confirmed this – famous former student debaters include Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair, and Benazir Bhutto, the first democratically elected female leader of a Muslim country. Bhutto was even the President of the Oxford Union.

A debater is someone good at delivering a speech, but most importantly, a debater is erudite and can formulate an argument for an array of issues, especially those of a political and economic nature. It is also interesting to watch a debater in action – clear diction, restrained yet confident emotions and gestures, a knowledge of elocution, and the ability to pause at the right times in a way similar to a politician. Armed with these skills, it is easy for a debater to take an oral exam, make it through a tough interview, or in one phrase resolve a professional conflict. Who wouldn’t benefit from these kinds of soft skills?

‘Debate teaches you to substantiate your point of view and use convincing arguments to defend your position. This is important for graduates of any university, as it helps you build a career and it teaches you how to rethink your own position when you encounter an opposing viewpoint. In other words, [it teaches you] to be open minded,’ comments Alexander Skvortsov, curator of the HSE Debate Club and third-year student in the Faculty of World Economy and International Affairs. ‘Debates are not just kitchen table discussions; they are an art form that develops leadership skills and helps one succeed in life.’


Student parliamentary debates are a way for debate club members to imitate the types of debates that take place during real parliamentary meetings. They first appeared in the 19th century in Great Britain, where the first student debate club, Oxford Debate, was founded. The union still exists today and serves as a platform for students to develop public speaking skills.

There are two styles of student debate – British or American. The British parliamentary style, which is the official format used at WUDC, takes the form of a regulated dispute between two parties – the Government and the Opposition – one of which presents a case, while the other offers counterarguments to disprove the first team’s position. Each party consists of two teams, meaning there are two teams on the Government side and two on the Opposition side, each trying to substantiate its case before the judge.

One of the largest parliamentary debate clubs in the world is the Cambridge Union Society, founded in 1815. Notable past members include Winston Churchill, the Dalai Lama, author Stephen Fry, and actress Dame Judi Dench.

The American debate style is popular in the U.S. and Canada, the latter of which is home to the Canadian University Student Intercollegiate Debate Organization (CUSID). The style is similar to British parliamentary, but there are several important nuances. For instance, the American style only includes two teams – the Government and the Opposition, and just six speeches are given. In addition, the prime minister and leader of the opposition speak twice – at the beginning and end of the round. 

Rules of the Game

A jury selects the topic of the debate, and debaters only find out about the topic 15 minutes before the debate begins. The teams are placed on opposite sides of the room, the first including the prime minister, leader of the opposition, deputy prime minister, and deputy leader of the opposition, while the second includes the member of government, member of opposition, government whip, and opposition whip. Each speaker is given 5-7 minutes to carry out his or her role. The member of the government and the member of the opposition, for example, have to sum up the first half of the round by demonstrating why their colleagues from the government or opposition were right. The whips summarise the government’s conclusion from the debate. Instead of applause, the audience members hit their palms on the table, while the judge claps to show how much time a speaker has left.

The debates always end on good terms, though the arguments do get heated and sometimes resemble real political debates. The judges of a tournament always rely first and foremost on the logic of an argument and on participant erudition, and only after do they consider emotionality and rhetoric, despite the fact that the audience often focuses on the second.

Debates teach students how to analyse situations, think outside the box, and evaluate a topic both quickly and objectively, looking at each side of an argument and weighing the pros and cons. The debates are a type of game that broadens minds and expands horizons by forcing participants to constantly be on top of what is happening in the world. And as if this were not reason enough to improve one’s public speaking skills, one need only watch the 2007 film The Great Debaters, produced by Oprah Winfrey.


John Coughlin, NYU Professor and Coach of the NYU Abu Dhabi Team

‘I came here to watch our students perform and, as their coach, evaluate the results of their hard work. The skills that I give them with in the student debate club are very important not only in parliament, but in life as a whole. This includes public speaking skills, grammatical English (a lot of the students from the Abu Dhabi campus are not native English speakers), convincing arguments, and a sense of humour. This is why debate is a sort of education for life.

‘At the tournament, I noticed that all of the Russian students were at a high level intellectually, and that they work a lot on themselves and are extremely erudite. They are truly remarkable students, and the Russian team impressed me.

‘Of all of the tournaments I’ve been to – and we’ve been to a lot, including in Paris, Oxford, Budapest, and other cities – this one had the warmest and friendliest atmosphere. The Russians are friendly! Contrary to prevailing stereotypes. And that’s coming from an American [laughs].’

Megan Vincent, NYU Abu Dhabi Student

‘The first thing I remember about the HSE Open is how fun it was. I liked Moscow and I enjoyed talking to the Russian students, especially about economics and politics. I found the level of the debates to be very high, and I was surprised by the points of view the tournament participants had as concerns peace-making and international affairs. It was really interesting to improvise.

You really think I looked artistic? My emotions are likely partially fuelled by the fact that I study painting at the university and have a passion for theatre. Honestly, this was my first year doing debate, and it’s flattering to receive this prize and reaffirm my knowledge and skills.

Before I started doing debate, I had trouble expressing my ideas. Debating really helped me and was a sort of psychological trainer for me. Now I feel comfortable in front of an audience, and public speaking will help me in the future if I’m going to be a lawyer. And I’ve even learned to resolve issues with my parents “parliamentary style” without huge scandals.

Debate is not the most popular endeavour for students in the Middle East. That’s why we want to stand out at the international level and win championships. We have a small debate club that meets a few times a week. We’re still a subculture, but I hope this changes over time.’


See also:

Students Will Try the Role of Politicians at Parliamentary Debate

On April 2nd and 3rd, 2016, an international student parliamentary debate tournament, HSE Open 2016, will take place at HSE.