The May Ball: Not actually the seventh best party in the world?

A short look into the effect of these extravagant events

May Balls are a staple of the Cambridge gown culture, allowing them to celebrate what little term time they have left with their friends. They are typically held at the end of June, once exams are over; some colleges prefer to hold other celebrations of varying scales and timings, such as garden parties and Winter Balls, instead of a May Ball, but ultimately all are held for the purpose of students’ enjoyment.

However, their presence as part of the typical student’s social diet raises the question: how do May Balls affect both students’ finances and society’s – or prospective applicants’ – perception of Cambridge?

Crowds at the Sidney Sussex 2022 May Ball main stage (Image credit: Manav Divecha)

Is it daylight robbery?

Standard tickets for a May Ball can cost anywhere upwards of £100, and are likely to be higher if you are not a member of the College. Those wanting to attend larger ones, such as St. John’s College’s or Trinity College’s, can expect to pay up to around £240.

It should be noted that many May Ball committees have alternative payment arrangements for those with bursaries or those willing to work ‘half-on half-off’ (where students work for half the night and attend as a guest for the other half), but, for many, these reduced tickets are either still too expensive, or prevent them from fully enjoying the night as a result of tiring shifts.

Many colleges, as well as the University, offer bursaries to students from low-income backgrounds to enjoy the opportunities Cambridge has to offer, but, naturally, not every student in a difficult financial position proves to be eligible for these grants, and even those that do often need to put every penny towards rent and basic necessities. Should these students be forced to view their bursaries as hardship funds and – rather than use the money to enrich their university experience once or twice a year with special events such as May Balls – save it for the most basic of amenities?

The SLC application system is equally unable to rectify every wrong: while some students receive more than enough to cover their living costs, others don’t – a complicated financial situation or a guardian with many dependants back home can leave some students entirely lacking in disposable income.

The difference between having and not having £100, let along £240, during your last few weeks of term would surely mean a lot to anybody, but is especially significant for somebody short on money or heavily into their student overdraft. While this may not apply to all Cambridge students, as it stands, many are left scraping the bottom of the barrel by the end of a Cambridge year, and therefore unable to afford May Ball tickets, which increases the sense of inequality the university is trying to reduce.

Additionally, with many non-drinkers attending the event, it might seem sensible to offer a discounted non-drinking ticket. A member of one of this year’s May Ball committees (who prefers to remain anonymous) told The Tab that these non-drinking tickets aren’t offered because it is difficult to “prevent people with non-drinking tickets drinking at the event”.

To many, it seems this could be fixed easily: introducing drinking-ticket wristbands rather than leaving drinks free on the bar is just one possible solution. Yes, it may slow down the serving process marginally, but is surely no reason to create a more financially accessible event.

All-in-all, the financial implications of May Balls leave many students feeling the ‘FOMO’ that comes with not being part of this seemingly-integral Cambridge experience.

The St. John’s 2022 May Ball fireworks display (Image credit: Manav Divecha)

“I’m not like other girls”

Tourists can be seen lining up along river in punts stretching the width of the Cam to catch a glimpse of these events: we are a university known for our May Balls. They are written about in broadsheets internationally from the USA to Australia and are what much of the international community imagines when they think of us.

From the obvious unique features of Cambridge like the collegiate system to our annual boat races with Oxford, the May Ball is the cherry on top of the “wE’rE sPecIaL” cake. The possibly out-dated celebratory event that is the May Ball can seem to give off an air of elitism paralleled by almost no other university in the UK.

In the grand scheme of things regarding the University’s image, May Balls might well be just a sliver of what represents us, but when you are an internationally-recognised and influential institution, perhaps you should not be selectively appealing to wealthier backgrounds with the luxury marketing associated with the May Balls.

Upon asking a group of prospective Cambridge applicants if they would go to a May Ball given what they’ve heard about it, 30% said “definitely not” with an additional 10% “probably not”, reasons offered being that it is “elitist”, “pretentious” and a “rip-off”. Consider this, we still get characterised as the university that burns money in front of the homeless by society and, more importantly, sceptical prospective applicants – so why do we still do it?

King’s Affair 2022 (Image credit: Conall Moss)

Don’t take this too seriously

Of course, May Balls are not this institution’s biggest concern, nor should they be, but the way they are advertised, discussed and symbolised as a key part of the University experience says more about how lenient Cambridge is at portraying the high-flying life and old-fashioned traditions.

Perhaps this reflection on May Balls is just a gateway to thinking about the wider outreach problems Cambridge and its students are facing.

The outgoing Chair of the May Ball Presidents’ Committee told The Tab, “It is difficult to comment without knowing an individual’s personal circumstances and the College(s) involved. The cost of each May Ball is set by the individual event and that the MBPC can only play an advisory role in price setting. For this reason, any concerns about a May Week event should be directed initially towards the event President, who will in confidence seek a resolution. Alternatively, this can occur via a College Tutor.

“Significant progress regarding accessibility has been made across May Week events, with a fast expansion in bursary ticketing schemes year-upon-year. From personal experience, all 2022 event Presidents were conscious of the financial impact of the events on students and have been committed to easing the burden as much as possible within the constraints of planning and funding highly complex events. During this year, we also reached out to Cambridge SU’s Class Act campaign to discuss these issues but received no response. We would like to work with them in the future to guide Committees next year, especially in light of the heightened cost of living crisis.

“Additionally, while a reduced ticket price for non-drinkers would be welcome for a range of reasons, the budgets of such events are limited by fixed production costs, so it is unlikely a large reduction could be made through offering a non-drinking option. However, we would fully support any College who made the decision to provide non-drinking tickets, though the amount of the deduction would, again, entirely depend on the individual event.

“All committees welcome constructive feedback at any point in the planning process. For those that want to be involved in shaping May Week events of the future, Committee applications for most College Committees will be opening in the new academic year.”

The University of Cambridge was also contacted for comment.

Feature image credits: Manav Divecha

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