Life Divided: Formal or Normal?

Are formals a harmless tradition, or an extravagant excess?

Formals: Julia Alsop

There’s nothing that feels more Oxford than donning a gown, grabbing a bottle of wine (second cheapest is far classier than the cheapest, right?), and making your way to an ornate hall for a formal meal that cost you a maintenance loan-friendly £5.

Sure, it may be ridiculous. Sure, it may be an archaic tradition. But even the haters among you have a soft spot for it. It’s one of the peculiarities of Oxford life: it’s a privilege that makes up for the intensity of eight-week terms and the pain that is fifth week. And sometimes, even students who live off pesto pasta need a touch of decadence to feel human.

Obviously, some colleges are better renowned for gastronomical pursuits than others. But wherever you go, your college hall is your space – somewhere you have worked your arse off to get to (and still do), and, as such, get to enjoy the space with friends, good food, and a decent bottle of wine.

Trust me, I have come to appreciate this all the more, since my beloved hall, at Worcester College, has been out of action for the duration of Michaelmas and Hilary for renovation. Going to formal at other colleges is great, but the real joy of formal is really down to enjoying your college and the people in your college community.

Oxford traditions are innately a bit stupid – you either love them or hate them: sub fusc for one (even the name is outmoded), matriculation, trashing. But, in my opinion, formal hall is probably one of the most wholesome ones.

When you spend so much of your time in college having essay crises, what is better than to get to enjoy your environment, to appreciate the wonderful architecture, and to have conversations that help build the memories of your days of Oxford?

Not Formals: Lara Scheibli

To most people formals mean good(ish) food and a chance to have a pleasant evening in the company of friends.

However, what many do not consider is the ways in which formals can perpetuate an image of Oxford that might deter those from already underrepresented backgrounds from applying.

There is already a widespread belief that Oxford is for the posh, privileged and privately educated. We foster this view further with extravagancies such as frequent formal dinners. Many applicants do not know anyone who attends Oxford, and they therefore rely on hearsay to build up and understanding of the University. If you hear about these events and already have a preconception of Oxford, you may well think twice about applying here.

Of course, there are lots of programmes which do great work in ensuring that more people from all kinds of backgrounds apply to Oxford. However, making the University a little less “traditional” by reconsidering formals and other associated traditions could help the wider access problem further. It is no coincidence that those colleges which are regarded as less traditional tend to have higher percentages of state school students.

On a wider societal level, formal dinners also reinforce the obsolete British class system. They support the ultimate smugness of Oxford students seeing themselves as in some way just “better” than others. It seems like we should all learn to recognise that there are lots of intelligent and deserving people who do not go to prestigious universities, either by choice or chance.

Formal dinners just highlight the existing social privilege of many Oxford students. We should therefore rethink their place at the University in the 21st century, and whether we might be better off without them.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Isn’t it rather condescending to imagine that lower class people will be frightened off applying to Oxford if they hear that students wear gowns for dinner in their colleges? Isn’t it just as possible that they would like to be at a university where they can put on a show for dinner, without it costing them anything extra? The writer sounds as if she hates Oxford. But that’s no reason to stop other people enjoying it.

  2. “Lower class people”? It’s statements like this, well meaning but which represent a bubble of privilege and cocooned existence, which will put applicants off, not the gowns!

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