Unbelieva-ball

Can Oxford really say it's committed to equal opportunities when it excludes poorer students from its most iconic celebrations?

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As Trinity term begins, so does ball season at Oxford. No doubt a great deal of students are looking forward to this much-appreciated reprieve from studying (and stressing out over not studying), especially when many of us have exams, but is this the case for everyone?

There is an undeniable air of sophistication around the idea of a ball, and it’s always nice to immerse yourself in that every once in a while, but at a lot of universities, Oxford in particular, these balls breed elitism and the very class-divide that the university is supposed to be trying to quell. This may sound like an attack on something very well-intentioned and just generally enjoyable, but selectively enjoyable things that exclude certain people on the grounds of wealth and social upbringing need to be reformed.

Unlike a lot of things at Oxford, balls are not an exclusive tradition, and other universities do it too. Perhaps this makes it more acceptable, considering that wherever you go, there will probably be a ball and it sure won’t be free. However, the average cost of a ball ticket at St. Andrew’s, another old, prestigious university, is £35. The ‘cheapest’ ball ticket at Oxford ranges around the £85-£90 price tag, usually increasing in price for extra privileges, such as a meal or some free drinks.

Oxford may be one of the best universities around the world, but if we pay the same as everyone else for tuition, why can’t we pay the same for entertainment? St. Andrews can pull off balls that are just as good as ours, so why are they over double the price here? Oxford as an institution has grown comfortable with cutting out certain groups of people in the past, but that by no means makes it an acceptable practice in the present.

I knew well before I arrived at Oxford that I would not be going to any balls. The money that I would have to put into attending even one would set me back far more than I deem it worthy to spend a night in a suit drinking cocktails. This is the reality for a lot of students here, and it makes one lose faith in the promises that the university has made to iron out elitism and make the university accessible and enjoyable to everyone, regardless of background.

This is hardly something I lose sleep over, but what I didn’t know was that I would be made a fuss of for not going. As a result, I must vacate my room for the night of the college ball, which ultimately I see as an insult. Do they think I’m going to try and sneak into the ball? Maybe that has happened before, maybe they have to take precautions, but nevertheless, being moved to a different building for a night feels like an attack on my decision (that essentially wasn’t much of a decision) to not go to a ball. I would have been happy to stay in my room all night and not be a disturbance; I take this action as a lack of trust and a disrespect to my reasons for not attending.

It also serves as a physical separation of students that is centred around their financial background – I know that some people won’t be going simply because they don’t want to, but for those without a choice this feels very much like a physical manifestation of the class separations that Oxford is supposed to be fighting against. Going to such lengths to make sure a person cannot be included in something feels very wrong to me, and perhaps the university instead should be going to these lengths to make sure that everyone has the opportunity to be included.

In all honesty, I wish I didn’t have to sound like I am trying to stop anybody from having fun and making the most out of their time at university, yet it seems unfair for certain types of enjoyment to be exclusively for those with the money. Yes, I am aware that essentially that’s how life works, but when there is an opportunity to avoid this, why wouldn’t anyone take it, especially at a university that is as wealthy as this? It almost feels like the poorer students are being punished for their financial situation – colleges and the university as an institution offer great financial support for people who are really struggling, but there is no way to justify needing a bursary on the grounds of unacademic, entertainment-based activities, and even if there was, it simply doesn’t feel right to be having to take this money for something like a ball, which should already be accessible to all. 

The future of Oxford is the hands of its students – it’s our responsibility to decide whether to cast off old, elitist traditions and move towards a place of equity, or continue along a path of financial discrimination that crops up in places that the institution seems to overlook. So let’s do the right thing.

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