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Tuesday, June 21, 2022

Party to privilege, and privileged to party: College balls and socioeconomic exclusion

Jack Twyman discusses how Oxford's college balls reinforce elitism and socioeconomic exclusion.

Today, while the ‘traditional’ barriers to Oxford that state school students face are slowly being eroded, even once here, many financial obstacles remain firmly in place to separate students into the haves and have nots. The phenomenon of college balls is perhaps one of the best illustrations of this division.

Last weekend, as I walked along Cornmarket in the late evening, in the sky above me were brilliant cascades of fireworks; live music filled the warm air, and I could imagine, from the laughter that filtered over the rooftops, that drinks were flowing freely.  A quick check of social media showed me what I had expected – many college balls were in full swing. There were Ferris wheels. Acrobatic dancers. Ball gowns. Tailored suits. Live music. Open bars. And then I pulled up my news app and saw the latest updates on the unfolding cost of living crisis engulfing the country. I began to realise the hypocrisy of the university I am a member of. Its reputation of excellence and its infamous ‘experience’ exist in nothing but name for its most vulnerable students, and exclude those who cannot afford the associated costs. 

My college, Regent’s Park, has the cheapest ball in Oxford, but even that’s still £50. Many of my peers from other colleges tell me of prices well into the £200 and £300s, if not more. This is in addition to the consideration of an often expensive outfit. Even something as rightly controversial as trashing could be said to be far more financially accessible, and therefore even something which generates a sense of equality, when compared to the extravagance of college balls. The disarray of university policy with regards to socio-economically exclusive activities is very real. The social exclusion of those students who, understandably, can’t afford these price tags will only exacerbate the imposter syndrome faced at this university. As will the enjoyment of students who decided to endure the burden of cost: those who didn’t bat an eyelid at the price tag will enjoy a carefree experience, but those who spent maybe two entire weekly budgets on it will carry the nagging thought of the exorbitant cost throughout the night. Some colleges even force students off their premises and out of their accommodation for the duration of the ball, sometimes into the early hours of the morning. They show no regard for their students’ wellbeing or consideration for what they will do if they cannot afford to attend their college ball. 

I concede that there are many people who do enjoy college balls, from many demographics,  and this is not to say that they are undertaking a morally wrong endeavour. Instead, I would pose to them the idea that if the revelry of college balls was toned down, this would do away with the need to subsidise expensive tickets and allow the resources used for this to be redirected towards arguably better causes, such as charitable endeavours or initiatives which benefit the whole student community in a longer-term way. Perhaps more student support services could be funded, better day-to-day meals provided, or even lower cost housing or vacation residence. Surely this would be a better use of resources, even if some of the opulence of the ball had to be stripped back? A dinner in Pembroke Hall, for example,  costs £6.67 and has to be purchased six days a week when living in college on-site – subsidising this would solve a more immediate and constant issue.

Yet the persistent and explicit drive towards ever increasing grandeur is a problem emblematic of the ills facing the University of Oxford and its community today, alongside the upper socio-economic echelons of society more generally. Students do not need a ball to engage socially with their community – most balls are held on college grounds which are free to access normally. But do you need a ball to get impressive photos for Instagram? Much of the evidence I see online attests to this. Oxford students share a unique approach to social media. It seems that academic competitiveness manifests itself in a rivalry to have the ‘best’ time, and most importantly prove to other students that this is definitely the case. The need for validation from social media is a trap that far too many Oxford students have fallen into. So, are they really just focusing on enjoyment? 

Balls are a manifestation of the hierarchical independent school culture that persists in Oxford. It is unfortunate that many haven’t realised the joy of a less elitist social activity. “It’s never worth the money to go to a big college ball – you pay for the novelty of the thing,” one student remarked to me. There are many other ways to have a fun, sociable evening, if you can bear to forgo the novelty: a picnic at Port Meadow or University Parks, perhaps. And Formal Hall thankfully offers a relatively affordable means of enjoying occasions centred on historic tradition at Oxford. So what is the need for college balls – after all, aren’t they just a glorified bop? I sympathise with the heavy workload Oxford burdens students with, and the conflicting social schedules that are hard to coordinate; it can be a welcome reprieve to have an event organised and know that you will be among friends – if you can afford to throw money at the problem. 

Students arriving from private schools have on average been the recipient of three times the educational resources than their state school counterparts. They also can be the beneficiary of scholarships reserved for former students of certain private schools. A study found that in Oxford preliminary exams, ex-private school students achieve proportionately better results.  Ex-state school students, like myself, who have had to work hard to reach the level of our privately educated peers may not be able to contemplate spending an entire afternoon and evening at a ball. State school students also have to contend with private school alumni’s domination of the University’s sports and music clubs and their associated socials. It could be said then that social interaction at Oxford is itself a source of inequality. Is it a coincidence that those private school students that often are more likely to have the financial luxury of going to these grand social affairs are (marginally) outdone in final exams by ex-state school students, despite the uneven playing field?

Things don’t have to be this way. There are many alternatives to the dichotomy of having an expensive, extravagant ball, or not having or going to a ball at all. For example, Wadham has a ‘Ball for All’ scheme which allows students who would struggle with the cost to purchase reduced price tickets, though these are still £50, so not exactly ‘for all’. I do believe that potential future schemes, inspired by Wadham’s but which go much further, and combined with other cost-friendly initiatives can lead to a much fairer and healthier ball season in Oxford. On Facebook I have already seen groups set up dedicated to borrowing and sharing ball outfits, which eliminate much of the additional costs that a ball ticket generally entails. Still, maybe even the concept of a garden party, or something informal but with an aurora of occasion, could be a better solution.

College balls in all their grandiose extravagance are outdated. I have decided not to attend my college ball, despite its relative affordability, and despite the social exclusion that arises from that decision. Instead, I will be donating what I can to a charity close to my heart: Rainbow Migration, who help vulnerable LGBTQ+ individuals migrate to safe countries. I am privileged to be able to consider redirecting the cost into a donation, but my point still stands. And so does the principle. I have no desire to be party to an archaic tradition that entrenches the internal division that is so readily persistent in Oxford. Time for change can always be and is always now. 

Image credit: Queens ball / CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

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