IN an increasingly polarised political world, respectful debate is a rare gem to find.
But for the last year at the University of St Andrews, students and staff have been encouraged to create projects which have that at their heart, in the hope of showing debate can still be an enjoyable, mind-stretching activity.
At what felt like a pivotal moment in Scotland’s history following the pandemic, a pot of £35,000 was put aside last January for the launch of the Scotland’s Future series – an initiative aimed at demonstrating the university’s commitment to playing an active role in issues set to be pertinent for the country over the next decade.
“We wanted to not just promote talking heads but to invite students and staff to come up with projects that focus on issues that are going to be important for Scotland across a wide range of areas in the next decade and to generate constructive debate on that,” said Principal Dame Sally Mapstone.
“I think it’s incredibly important students engage in decent debate but also see it as enjoyable. I think we’ve lost the sense of that.
“People get quite angry with each other and actually debate can be an enjoyable thing because it’s a stretching mental activity and having that sense you’re participating in debate and properly understanding someone else’s point of view is valuable.
“We’ve lost some of that sense of pleasure in debate and anything we can do to stimulate that sense that debate is valuable because it takes you somewhere you wouldn’t otherwise have gone, I think that’s important.”
Students and staff have been awarded funding for a range of ideas through Scotland’s Future including the development of a think tank that would give young people a voice in the policymaking process.
Students were surveyed to find out what issues they wanted to dig into, eventually settling on affordability and accessibility of housing and inclusivity in higher education.
Other projects have included an interactive public event focusing on responsible debate and an art initiative looking at energy ethics and climate change.
A Scotland’s Future podcast – largely hosted by the “instrumental” international relations professor and former SNP MP Stephen Gethins –- has also been funded to run alongside the initiative which has allowed academics and students to speak about their projects.
The podcast has additionally taken a deeper dive into some aspects of current affairs including the war in Ukraine – with the People’s Deputy of Ukraine Lesia Vasylenko starring in one episode – and the cost of living crisis, while Gethins hosted a talk on the creation of Scotland’s only think tank on international affairs, the Scottish Council on Global Affairs.
When the series was launched a year ago, Mapstone said there were a range of factors including the pandemic, the ongoing constitutional debate and the impact of Brexit – which she said had been “obscured” by the coronavirus crisis – which made it feel like it was a crucial moment for young people to get involved with events shaping the country’s future.
Asked if she felt like it was a pivotal moment in Scotland’s political history, Mapstone told the National: “It would be fair to say that.
“We were emerging from the pandemic and the way in which the pandemic was conducted in Scotland was slightly different from the rest of the UK, and everyone was conscious of the constitutional issues.
“The climate crisis is something our students are very interested in and we have a strategic commitment to promoting debate on sustainability, and then there’s also the impact of Brexit, some of which has been slightly obscured by the incursion of the pandemic.
“It felt like a moment, particularly when we were exiting the pandemic, when we were just starting to get people back together, to try and restart on what we mean by debate and that necessity to reinhabit debate as a positive instead of a defensive activity.”
Fifteen projects have been funded in the series’ first year, but Mapstone said there are plans to inject another £35,000 to keep it going for another year.
Although the focus so far has been on generating debate within the university, there are plans to broaden it out over the next 12 months, bringing in more high-profile speakers and getting involved with schools.
Mapstone – who is an expert in medieval literature – said she has always been very aware of the university’s long history of being right in the thick of discussions about Scotland’s future and she hopes St Andrews can become a “friendly crucible” for debates in the years to come.
She said: “I’m a medievalist by training so I am conscious of the fact that when this university was founded in the 15th century it was playing a really active part in the debates then about Scotland’s future and about key questions in Europe like whether the pope should be able to act of its own authority or be bound by a council.
“So I feel there is a very interesting historical continuity but also, when you give people the opportunity to create their own projects, they come up with an amazing range of things that reflect current preoccupations and those might be the climate crisis, decolonisation, the role of the armed forces, Gaelic culture, what constitutes respectful debate, there’s been a whole range of things from staff and students.
“I hope it [the Scotland’s Future series] will model authentic debate about key issues in St Andrews but beyond that I hope we can use St Andrews as a kind of friendly crucible for raising issues in a way that helps and motivates others.”