Image description: Students at Keble College ball in 2008.
An Oxford ball epitomises the stereotypical ‘Oxford’ experience- lavish and luxurious, these ‘unforgettable’ nights are a somewhat of a rite of passage and are a central part of many student’s social calendars.
With names that sound like Apprentice teams, balls come in all different shapes and sizes: charity balls, college balls, commemoration balls, society balls but all share one unfortunate similarity- a rather expensive price tag. While most promise unlimited food and drink, it is easy to question whether your £100 is well spent on a C list celebrity artist, copious vodka cokes and the occasional churro.
Balls are not an Oxbridge exclusive phenomenon- other universities host similar events, but as the nature of Oxford means that students cannot work during term time, the ticket price is often paid by the student maintenance loan, exacerbating the problem of financing this ‘fun’. It is easy to see why many criticise balls for being exclusive, both through price and practice. The ritzy, gluttonous affair can be off-putting for many, but FOMO drives these sell-out events. The subsequent Oxtickets pleas written by those who missed out on tickets, willing to pay well above the asking price in order to spend the night with their friends only reinforces the social exclusivity and the fact that, unfortunately money is means through which an ‘unmissable night’ can be secured.
Access is a big concern at Oxford. While the admissions process is constantly criticized in the media, the sad truth is that talented people are still put off from even choosing to apply in the first place as they fear they won’t ‘fit in’ to the university social life. Balls do have a part to play in reinforcing the one-sided media portrayal of Oxford social life as elite, exclusive and independent school dominated. There have been calls to make balls more accessible, to reduce ticket prices, but many balls run at a loss, with ticket prices barely covering spending. But why is so much money being spent on one night? In a world where we’re trying to promote sustainability surely encouraging excess and overspending is just counterproductive.
Steeped in history and tradition, balls should remain part of the Oxford social calendar. Yes, they need to be made more accessible, but they also require reimagining. While some Cambridge colleges have started to offer discounted tickets for students with bursaries from their college or university, I think a better solution would be to reduce the amount spent on balls in order to reduce the ticket price for everyone. Small changes could decrease the cost of the night, without compromising the fun. Who really needs 16 different drinks options, numerous food stands and some rather underwhelming fireworks? Ball committees should be encouraged to limit spending and promote sustainability, and this would help promote accessibility through bringing ticket prices down.
Ball committees should be encouraged to limit spending and promote sustainability, and this would help promote accessibility through bringing ticket prices down.
There are currently some ways to avoid paying the full whack. Some opportunities to work half the night, pay half the ticket price are available, but these are not widely circulated, and many students remain unaware of these opportunities. Even for those who are aware, the awkwardness of working in the cloakroom until 12, having to check in all your friends’ coats before changing in Cinderella style and joining the party would be too off-putting for some. There is no perfect solution, but undoubtedly an attempt to reduce costs, and therefore ticket prices in general, would be a step in the right direction.
For those who choose not to attend, the night of the ball can be an ostracizing and lonely experience. Being kicked out of your on-site college accommodation so a ball can go ahead puts individuals in a difficult situation. College ball committees need to do more to make sure that those don’t attend, either through choice or financial circumstance, do not feel isolated.
It is easy to question whether it is all ‘worth it’. Balls may only be one element of Oxford’s wider social accessibility problem, but they are the most overt and attention-grabbing. It is important that more is done to make balls more accessible, imaginative and environmentally-friendly. Oxford is not an exclusive university experience- there is most certainly something for everyone, but the media portrayal continues to show the one-dimensional, drunken middle-class southerner having a good time, and it is thisimage that continues to put off people from applying who feel as if they won’t fit some fictitious, pre-built ‘oxford-student mould’.