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Are college balls really worth the money?


Harry Gosling

There is nothing quite like the experience of an Oxford ball. A night of decadence, debauchery and indulgence in the beautiful surroundings of a centuries old Oxford College is for many students the highlight of their time at the University. And quite rightly too, given the price of some of the Commemoration Balls. I am not writing to market Ball tickets, but to suggest that the virtually unique nature of an Oxford ball is well worth the price paid in most cases.

From an objective perspective, it may appear that Oxford balls are not all that they are made out to be. Copious amount of food and drink are consumed, yes. But £95 worth?

Perhaps not. But this misses the point. The old adage that something can add up to an experience that is greater than the sum of its parts holds firm in this case. It is the almost unique experience of an Oxford ball that makes it worth the price that is paid. There can be few events as magical as a ten hour party with hundreds of guests dressed in ball gowns and black tie, all moving to an eclectic mix of jazz, funk and disco. There are a million activities: laser quest, dodgems, fireworks and more, with barely a dull moment as the party flows from one sixteenth century quad to the next.

Part of what makes these college balls such a fantastic experience is that they are so well-funded: the bigger the budget, the better the party. Reducing the price of college balls would only diminish the experience. The slightly cheaper balls, such as those held by RAG and the Union, are great but many students justifiably regard the college balls as better value, given that they can offer a more memorable night, rather than just a great one. Some students will of course disagree, arguing that college balls are too expensive for what they are. But the fact that ball tickets appear to sell out within minutes of their release is in itself proof that they are not too expensive: students evidently think that the experience that is offered by college balls is worth parting with up to £180. Repeated attendance at balls proves that many students regard them as well worth the money.

An oft-cited argument is that the price of many of these college balls excludes poorer students who cannot hope to pay the ticket price. This argument is farcical. Would we suggest that a car, or a restaurant or a holiday was too expensive on account of the fact that some people could not afford it? Attendance at a college ball is not an essential part of being a student at Oxford and indeed for those who are adamant that they do not miss out there is always the option of working at the ball and then enjoying the second half.

Oxford is a tremendously intense environment and so many students rightly value a college ball as the climax of their time at Oxford, or, alternatively, one final night of excess before exams season commences. Regardless of why different individuals agree to part with large sums of money in order to experience a college ball, it is clear that they are justified in doing so.

College balls are the most glamorous of Oxbridge traditions. What makes them such a unique and special experience is the decadence and the luxury that can only be supported through high ticket prices. Shelling out £100 or more for a ticket to a College Ball is not for everyone. But I for one believe it to be worth every penny.



Patrick Mullholland

Spring has sprung and Trinity Term is now in full swing. Freshly pruned, it’s been a year of ‘firsts’ for our 2014/15 harvest of chundergraduates. Matriculash and Oxmas, bops and bopstivals, crew dates and formals, choir hymns and welfare buns, prelims and 2:1s (well, I guess it hasn’t all been firsts). Still, it’s the glitz and glamour, an evening of extravagance that is marked out, circled and scored across our calendars. Admit it, by now we’ve all tried it on, ‘playing the bon vivant’ (do pardon this, the first of many chic loanwords). The hors-d’œuvre (I told you so…) has been served up – the pièce de résistance is yet to come! I am, of course, referring to the main event, the crème de la crème of Oxford soirées: the college ball.

Yes, for a limited time only students from Cowley to Summertown will grace the city of dreaming spires. Expect three-piece hires, lace dresses, pocket squares, dress shirts and that one guy that always wears a kilt… However, while life may look free-and-easy, it’s most certainly not free. Rather, it comes at a price – and a very heavy one at that.

Or maybe that’s just me? With this question in mind, I took to Trinity’s JCR, posting one of those annoying, probing surveys (N.B. – there is no conflict of interest here, I swear). In total, there were 42 respondents that partook in the investigation, ‘Are college balls too expensive?’ Sadly, I’ve elected to omit the popular answer of ‘Ed Balls’ but I am pleased that someone bothered to vote for him. The results were as follows:

Yes, college balls are too expensive – 71 per cent; it depends on which college ball – 29 per cent; no, college balls are not too expensive – 0 per cent. Granted, I can’t imagine too many people would have the gall to name and shame themselves by saying ‘no’ – “Goodness gracious no! They’re as cheap as chips, what am I supposed to do with all this money weighing down my pockets?” Notwithstanding, there is a point here (somewhere) and it is this: overwhelmingly, students feel as though they are being ripped off when it comes to admission prices. Sky-rocking into triple digits, Trinity’s lavish Commemoration Ball last year would have set you back £155 for members, or £185 for non-members. St. John’s tallied up to a similar figure of £150. Gulps, take that student loan. On a purely economic basis this is almost extortionate, regardless of how enjoyable it may be. Needless to say, this also feeds into a popular extramural misconception of Oxbridge as a ‘posh playground’, a bastion of the privileged. Naturally, this is not a critique of hardworking ball committees that endeavour tirelessly to conjure up thrilling themes and cherished memories. That it is, however, at the very least, somewhat exclusive remains something of an issue. Surely it goes without saying that all students, not just the jeunesse dorée, ought to have the choice of deciding whether or not they wish to attend. Financial constraints really shouldn’t factor into the equation.

On the flipside, not all balls will have you re-mortgaging your house. Take St Hilda’s for instance. Quite a few of my friends were impressed by how affordable it was. Tickets were available for as low as £64, which, while pricey, could hardly be said to be breaking the bank. One student, Abi Willett, commented how she was “pleasantly surprised” by the great value for money, saying, “The food was excellent and the Beyoncé tribute was a particular highlight.” This model is something for other colleges to aspire to. Organisers should strike a balance; accessibility and quality need not hinder the other. A ball is at its heart an excuse to dress up and look nice. People anticipate some expense but not a crater in their bank accounts.

Added to the mix we also have the small matter of preparation, of ordering your suit off ASOS and hoping it arrives before the warehouse burns down. Failing that, a quick peek inside Ede and Ravenscroft will remind you why there’s a Marks and Spencer in your local shopping centre, and not the former. Truth be told, dress codes can place enormous un-costed burdens upon attendees. One must also go through all manner of difficulties before settling on the appropriate attire. But rest assured, Balliol College, in 2012, graciously decided to make this decision for you, tough as it is. A white tie birthday bash was held in celebration of the college’s 750th anniversary (overcompensating for 458 years in its neighbour’s shadow no doubt). Now, I’m not lashing out at white tie per se, only that it is indicative of an inherent feature of ‘ball culture’: frivolous spending for frivolity’s sake. So, in the end, don’t be shocked if you run up bills that match or exceed your ticket price.

On the whole, I think it’s fair to say balls aren’t always what they are cracked up to be (I’m looking at you, infamous Pembroke Ball 2013). From time to time, it really is a bit of a balls-up. And sure, many may meet the mark or surpass it once in a while but even then they’re often overpriced.

To put it crudely, it depends on whose balls you prefer. Some, like Hilda’s, are relatively cheap and deliver, but many don’t. Most balls are purposefully too expensive. They are kaleidoscopic carnivals, showy displays of pomp and circumstance. If this is of discomfort to us then our approach is in need of an overhaul. 

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