Durham Debating members have voted to leave the Durham Union Society (DUS), citing issues with funding and the culture of the Union Society. In a referendum, the split passed with a majority of 20-4, meaning Durham University Debating Society will now operate as a society within Durham Students’ Union.
The group, who operate Durham’s competitive debating teams, had been very successful in their time within the Union. Debating teams from Durham reached the World Championship semi-finals in 2019 and the European Championship quarter-finals in 2020. In such competitions, members are given 15 minutes to prepare arguments on a previously unseen topic before debating in a set format with other students from across the world.
The Durham Union Society is Durham’s oldest student society. Its other core features, which will not be affected by the move, including addresses and Friday Night Debates, featuring prominent speakers, who debate issues in a chamber on Palace Green. They also operate a student bar at 24 North Bailey.
Durham Debating’s president, George Filippopoulos, told Palatinate: “We are pleased that Debate members have – for the first time in its history – been given the opportunity to choose whether they want to stay within the framework of the Durham Union. We are also pleased that the discussion focussed on informed conversations considering what was best for debating.”
One key issue in the disaffiliation campaign was value for money. The Durham Union Society charges £65 for a lifetime membership. Figures seen by Palatinate suggest that a Union member who joined only to debate would see just £2.60 of that membership fee over three years. The new debating society will now charge around £20 for yearly membership and £40 for life membership.
In normal years the debating arm of the Union would have expected between £500 and £1,500 in funding from the Union. As a result of conversations between the Union and Debate earlier this academic year, Durham Debating was under the impression that – as a part of cuts due to Covid-19 – they should not expect any funding from membership fees for the following four years. Funding shortfalls would have to be made up through volunteer time.
The issue of debate funding has brought renewed focus to other aspects of Durham Union funding. Figures shared during the campaign showed that in 2018 the organisation spent over £7,000 on marketing and £22,800 hosting their Friday Night Debates (FNDs).
A Freedom of Information Request by Palatinate showed that Durham University has transferred a net amount of over £10,000 per year to the Durham Union Society for the past 5 years, with that figure reaching £12,122 in the year 2019/2020. This is understood to be part of an arrangement where the University subsidises the salary of the Office Manager, the DUS’ full-time employee.
Other issues beyond funding were also raised. One member of the new Durham University Debating Society told Palatinate they were glad to be “out of a toxic culture that marginalises minorities and has consistently proved itself incapable of reform”. Another member, supporting the plans, said that “the need to build something better was clear and now we look forward to delivering on that promise”.
This is not the first time such allegations have been made about the Durham Union Society. In December, Durham Students’ Union voted to condemn the DUS for failing “to prevent and effectively penalise incidents of racism/misogyny amongst both its membership and leadership”.
A Palatinate investigation in July 2020 had highlighted allegations of systemic bigotry, bullying and malpractice within the society, and was followed by the launch of a Facebook page campaigning to ‘Boycott the Durham Union’. The group had written an open letter to Durham Debating calling for disaffiliation in September.
The Durham Union Society declined to comment.
Image: moz278 via Creative Commons
After communication from the Durham Union Society, this article was updated on 7th January 2021. The article previously stated that the debating arm of the Union would have expected £500 in funding from the Union. This was corrected to between £500 and £1,500. Other minor clarifications were also made.