Debating Politics at University: The PSI Discussion Forum

Natasha Wakelin, UEA student

At UEA, students regularly discuss politics outside of class in the PSI Discussion Forum. This was set by current third year student Natasha Wakelin in collaboration with Steven Ram.  In this post, she describes what happens in the Forum each week.

The PSI Discussion forum was set up in November 2013 in an effort to provide a platform for thoughtful and constructive academic discussion and debate of contentious issues in an inclusive and relaxed environment.  With an emphasis on no prior knowledge required, only an interest in the topic, the forum aimed to facilitate and encourage open and critical debate.

Many very successful forums have taken place since November 2013. Effective publicity facilitated by our eye-catching posters enabled the forums to generate regular attendance of between 20 and 30 students, including undergraduate, masters and PhD levels of study. Students from a range of schools have attended; from Politics, International Relations and Development Studies to Literature, Biomedicine, Philosophy and History.

The basic format comprises a 15-20 minute talk by an expert on the topic in order to provide a basic understanding of the issue and debate surrounding it, often a member of staff or guest speaker. This is followed by up to 2 hours of lively, but considered debate, with a mediator to ensure everyone who wants to gets a chance to speak. The informal nature of the forum is important to stress – students are free to come and go, eat and drink as they like. It has a friendly, relaxed atmosphere which is conducive to fluid and inclusive debate.

Our past topics include: ‘The US: A Force for Good in the World?’, ‘Should Drugs be Legalised?’, ‘The Politics of Austerity’, ‘Votes for Prisoners?’, ‘Digital Democracy?’, ‘Should we Bomb Iraq and Syria?’, ‘Is Torture ever Justified?’ and ‘Immigration: Who Deserves to Get In?’. Members are actively encouraged to suggest topics which they would like to be discussed and these requests are often met.

The forum seeks to provide opportunities for its members, an example of which was this semester’s ‘Digital Democracy?’ forum which as a whole contributed to the Speaker of the House of Commons’ Commission on Digital Democracy and enabled students to submit their ideas on this proposal to the commission individually. It helps students meet other students, staff and external visitors, such as Clive Lewis, the Labour Party’s prospective candidate for Norwich South and Charles Clarke, visiting professor of UEA.

Our online presence via social media is strong, the ‘UEA PSI Discussion Forum’ Facebook Group with over 100 members provides regular updates on the details of upcoming forums as well as an online discussion arena where members post and discuss questions or links to controversial issues. The social side to the forum is also active, with speakers and students routinely continuing debate at the Red Bar for several hours and organising social occasions for these likeminded students.

A minimum of three more forums are scheduled for this semester, and a new series of at least six will start next spring. We hope to see students from a wider range of subjects, especially first years, and encourage any topic suggestions.

Join the Facebook group here:

Here is some feedback from members of the PSI Discussion Forum:

Natasha and her colleagues succeeded in hosting an exceptional politics discussion forum every fortnight. A well marketed and succinctly organised event created a solid and consistent platform that ensured UEA students the opportunity to reason and debate over a series of contemporary political issues. The themes were carefully selected, allowing for the views of young, politically active students to ensue, and to foster critical thought in a constructive group setting. As another UEA student I must thoroughly congratulate Natasha for her vision for such a forum, and to have the courage to pursue it in order to improve the university experience of the UEA student.

– Aaron Finlayson, Second Year, Politics and Economic Student

What I have found most enjoyable about the discussion forum has been the topics covered; none really falling within the modules of my course yet still those where I would want to speak about. I think this aspect in particular has a massive potential to help students, particularly within humanities, to address areas that interest them, yet do not cover within their course. The discussions have been lively, engaging and welcoming to students of all subjects, and I’m very much looking forward to seeing how it progresses next year.

– Dale Thomas, Second Year, IR

There was something about the discussion forum that just made it work. Everyone has an opinion on the issues and it allowed you to explore important political issues through different eyes, and the debates were heated most of the time. It was serious but also enjoyable. The whole thing was also well organized. Looking forward to another year of the discussion forum.

– Michal Wichowski, First Year, Politics, Philosophy and Economics

Since the PSI Discussion Forum’s inception early this year I have attended and thoroughly enjoyed both the talks provided by members of staff and the discussion that followed. Being a Master’s student who also completed his undergraduate degree at UEA, during a time which there was not a PSI society, this forum has been a great experience and opportunity. The forum has cultivated something that is lacking both within the society and school as a whole: a place for social and academic interaction free from the strictures of lectures and seminars. The forum has enabled students from different years, modules and schools to meet and socially discuss academic issues. All of which has been a lot of fun.  It enabled students to encounter ideas that they otherwise would not have been available from other students and staff as well as forming a closer working and social relations between them. However for myself, speaking as a post-graduate student, the forum has provided something that isn’t available at all elsewhere at the university, this being the opportunity to meet with students both post and undergraduate and freely discuss ideas. All in all the PSI Discussion Forum has been a real credit to both the University and the school providing both a highly interesting and enjoyable time for all of its remembers and I thoroughly look forwards to being involved with it in the future.

– Michael Kyriacou, MA International Relations

It was incredible to attend a debate style society in which there wasn’t a pressure to be constrained to rigorous and sterile rules. For myself at least this made for a much more educational society in which I learnt about a multiplicity of viewpoints and was able to change and develop my own.

– Alfie Long, Second Year, Philosophy

From what I experienced it was well set out, a lecturer delivering an intro to the topic meaning that even if you had no prior knowledge of the topic you could still show up. There was engaging debate which was thought provoking and interesting and all students were given the opportunity to add to the debate.

– Haylie Pallister, Second Year, International Relations, President of PSI Society

Ever since the first meeting in the union bar, the discussion forum has been a welcoming and engaging forum for debate. It is refreshing to have a place, as a PSI student, to genuinely share your ideas and have them challenged. The discussion forum provided that benefit, one that I initially thought was lacking in our department, and for that I am grateful.

– Ephriam Luwemba, Second Year, Philosophy and Politics

Natasha Wakelin is an undergraduate student at the University of East Anglia.  She was recently awarded the Ede & Ravenscroft prize in recognition of her work in pioneering the PSI Discussion Forum engaging students in political debate across UEA, her overall contribution to the student experience in PPL, and academic achievement.

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