Some rules must be broken: why an outdated tradition at college formals needs to be abolished

The rule that students cannot enter once a Fellow has sat down at formals results in shocking environmental and welfare impacts

33 plates of food prepared but not eaten. A student split from her friends. 11 very confused second years.

What could possibly have been the source of such drama? Surprisingly, it was something as simple as a Fellow sitting down at the Queens’ Halloween formal table. 

Some colleges have a rule which states that when a Fellow is present at formal hall, no student is allowed to enter once the Fellow has sat down. Last Sunday, at least 11 of us were turned away from formal hall after arriving four minutes late, with one student just a few steps behind three other friends who had been allowed in.

Students in the corridor after being turned away from formal (Image Credit: Author’s own picture)

Environmental impact 

First and foremost, the environmental consequences of this rule are entirely avoidable. A minimum of 11 three-course meals were wasted that night, possibly more.

We were denied the option to take out the food in plastic containers, which we can do when the buttery is operating normally. We were also not allowed to collect the food at the end of the formal, once the fellows had left.

Food is a major contributor to greenhouse emissions, responsible for 21-37 per cent of man-made emissions according to a 2019 IPCC Special Report. Repeatedly wasting food to uphold tradition is simply not worth it.

One second-year student expressed how they could not understand why college “would rather throw out 11 three-course meals, including steak (one of the highest carbon footprint foods), than allow a group of students to walk to their table in front of a few Fellows.”

No practical explanation 

It would be understandable if coming in late was disruptive to the running of the formal. However, food had not even been brought out, and most other students had only just entered.

Moreover, when Fellows are not present at formal hall, students are allowed in late, and at some colleges such as Murray Edwards, the rule simply does not exist. Clearly, there is no practical reason behind the rule, except to uphold tradition.

This seemed particularly absurd on Halloween formal night. Walking a few metres across the hall once a Fellow had sat down would surely not have been the biggest indignity inflicted on the event when there was literally someone dressed as a rat eating at the table (which, on a side note, was in fact a fantastic costume).

A member of the high table came out to tell us that “rules are rules so they need to be followed.” But the reason for having a rule in the first place should be to enhance the community’s welfare. Yes, traditions are an important part of what ‘makes’ the Cambridge experience – but a little common sense is needed when applying them.

Another student commented that “throwing out £170 of food just for being four minutes late to your first formal dinner doesn’t seem to be the proportionate response one would choose if they were truly invested in the welfare of Queens’ students….nor were they receptive to any form of compromise, making it all the more strange why in these unprecedented times they never fail to remind us we are living through they would stick so harshly to precedent and tradition.”


Our formal dinner (Image Credits: Maya Harji)

Welfare impacts

This also draws attention to the impact the rule has on individual students. With many students on tight budgets, losing £14.50 can have a significant welfare impact.

Another second-year student explains how “many of us are on budgets for the week, and had factored the formal dinner into our budgets, meaning we had to go over to buy a new dinner.” The catering team told us they were not sure we would be refunded and that students who had been late the week before had been denied one.

The problem was worsened by supermarkets closing early on Sundays, meaning some of us did not have enough groceries to cook a meal. The feeling of injustice was deepened by no prior communication of the rule.

Sympathy from fellow students. Photo credit: Author’s own screenshot from Facebook.

Many of the attendees were second years, for whom this was their second ever formal, following a late matriculation dinner two weeks earlier that had -rather ironically – started late.

One student commented that they “feel it was unreasonable that we had not been informed of such a rule, and the staff and welfare officer, knowing this, still enforced it to such an extent – in my case being a few seconds behind my friends – resulting in no dinner.”

Another student added that “our excitement was shattered when we found out that our college puts hierarchical traditions and outdated rules above the welfare of its students, environmental concerns, and accessibility.”

The rule causes unnecessary waste and negative welfare impacts. Its costs clearly outweigh the benefits, indicating that it is time for it to be abolished. 

Featured image credit: Elizabeth Pearson

Queens’ college was contacted for comment. 

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