International debates between universities began in the years before the Second World War when student delegations from universities in Australia and North America would visit universities in Europe and practice their debating skills. It was not, however, until the beginning of the 1970s that this practice acquired a more structured character and the first intervarsity competitions took place.
The first major international debating competition between universities was the Trans-Atlantic University Speech Association Tournament which was held in London in 1976. University teams from the United States, Canada, England, and Scotland gathered to debate in English.
Two years later, in 1978, university teams from the United States, England, Scotland and New Zealand traveled to Melbourne and Sydney for a series of debating competitions.
This rapid growth throughout the 1970s prepared the ground for the first World Debating Championships, which was organized by the Glasgow University Union in January 1981 when 50 teams from 8 nations competed. Since than it has dramatically expanded and 270 teams from 40 nations took part in the championships last year in University College Cork. It is now the worlds second largest student event with only the World Student Games having more competitors. In 1986 teams from France and Greece participated for the first time in the competition extending participation to non-English speaking countries and adding a multi-cultural dimension.
Although the championships have become more of a global event they are still dominated by the original 8 nations. Australian teams have won 6 times. Scotland won five times, Ireland (King’s Inns, ’85, U.C.C. ’86), Canada, England and the U.S. have won twice. New Zealand has won just once. The hosting honours have also been shared out mainly between the original “Charter” nations (although Worlds council voted in Athens to change the Charter Nation System). The U.S have hosted the competition four times with Ireland (U.C.D. ’87, Trinity ’92, U.C.C. ’96), Scotland Australia and Canada all on three times. England, South Africa Phillipeans and Greece have hosted just once.
As well as the main debating championships the World Public Speaking championships are held at the same time. For competitors from non-English speaking nations the English as a second language competition provides an outlet for success when they would be unfairly disadvantaged if limited to the main championships only. Recently the World Masters Championships were also held at the championships.
In 1998 Stellenbosch in South Africa hosted the Championships, becomming the both first non-charter and African nation to do so. In 1999 Manilla in the Phillipeans hosted the championships becoming the first Asian Nation to do so. Toronto will host the 2002 championships and Stellenbosch again hosts in 2003.
Here is an extract from a mail written by the original convenor of the championships
On TAUSA and Honeywell – these were ad hoc competitions – from memory, TAUSA had no Australian/NZ (or Irish??) teams involved while Honeywell had no Irish, NZ or Canadian. Both were invitation competitions whereas the First Worlds set out to be (a) more open and (b) cover all of the world (or at least, initially, both North Americans, both ANZ and all four British Isles and the Caribbean).There are more details in the Minute Books of the GUU debates committee.
Ironically, my first idea for Worlds had been a TAUSA-like competition with the top 3 teams from each region who would have arisen out of local competitions and then ‘Mace-like’ be flown-to the Union to have the final rounds – but in 1981 in a UK recession, there was no sponsorship at all – so I made the competition into an open tournament. Thankfully!
Convenor of Debates, GU Union 1980-81 and 1981,
Convenor, First World Debating Competition, 1981,
Observer Mace, 1982,
E-SU Tour, 1981.