I realized I had made a mistake last week when I opened my bank account with both eyes closed. Clicking on the app left my screen dabbing fluorescent before I even dared to look. I had bought a ticket for Emma May Ball and it left a £170 hole in my transaction history.
I had already begun to ease my conscience, with interviews booked to work at other colleges during the week of May. I had calculated that if I worked two or three events that ticket price could be repatriated, and it shouldn’t cost too much to give the illusion of black tie if I found a party dress on Depop and put some fake eyelashes. But it was more than the cost that bothered me: it was the fear of missing out. After all, I was a fraud of a Cambridge student: I had been registered on Zoom, I could count the number of formalities I had attended on the one hand, and my experiences of the week of May on the other hand. Last year ended with a trip to Spoons and a drunken dip in cam. It was finally time for me to have the “real experience”, so I agreed to go. I had been attracted by the call of a siren and had jumped off the boat, bank card in hand, and no one was attached to the sails.
“The anger was directed at the cost and inaccessibility of something considered so universal within the ‘Cambridge experience'”
As themes have emerged and posts have been posted over the past fortnight, the cost of attendance has been shocked by many undergraduates – many of whom weren’t even registered during the last balls of May. With tickets ranging from around £90 to £225 for a singular evening of festivities, Camfess was once again tasked with those who resented the cost and inaccessibility of something considered so universal in the ‘experience of Cambridge”.
The May Week Presidents Committee has always insisted that May Balls are an increasingly inclusive, sustainable and accessible event. But let’s face it, most people’s expectations of such a reality are low. While League-led initiatives like Access-a-ball and Sustain-a-ball highlight significant issues with the organization of the May Balls, their existence is a result of the inherent inaccessibility of the events themselves in first place. The attempts to open the May Ball only illustrated their current shortcomings – and perhaps something more fundamental about the events themselves.
Take, for example, the cost of the “purse ticket,” a new initiative introduced by some May Ball committees. Some balls have seen ticket prices halved, while others are offering reductions of around £10-40, and so the claim that May balls are now affordable for all, due to the ticket of scholarship, is not just an act of selfish performativity, but a condescending attitude. insults the students she “seeks” to include. Many students, despite these cuts, still cannot afford to go – and students who are not eligible for a scholarship and also unable to pay is a discussion in its own right.
“It’s elitist – students who want to enjoy the fun make a Faustian pact to wait for their peers in exchange for a ticket”
Additionally, for those not attending their own college’s May Ball, there is always a price tag attached, where many colleges force resident students out for the entirety of the event. Those with extensive networks in Cambridge can easily find a floor to sleep on, but for the rest, an inevitable hotel stay has its own costs. Either way, the practice is outdated and forces students who can’t afford the event to become homeless – while making room for those who can.
The issues around the accessibility of May Balls are part of a larger story within Cambridge. Many students who make up the increasingly diverse population that the University boasts of are not able to fully participate in Cambridge’s unique undergraduate experience. Whether due to rising rental costs, pricey diner variations like Halfway Halls, or financial pressures, at a university that prohibits undergraduates from taking jobs during the term, Cambridge remains closed despite its modernization. Wealthier peers adopt a Kirsty Allsop-esque persona with hypothetical budget solutions, the problem remains unchanged, and May Balls carries on as usual.
We fill each other’s heads with stories that justify these traditions. I have to wonder though if the ‘value for money’ argument that is so often used to defend the May Ball, where £100+ for a few hours of fun is a bargain, is ever actually used by anyone who has one foot in the real world. Are the various stages and world famous acts really worth the money, when all we really want is a good night in college that we’ll remember with our friends? If we have to spend that much to have a good time, that might be more telling of us than the May Ball itself.
These events used to be a very different occasion: all-male, stuffy, and formal. Today’s May Ball is a very different matter – but, ultimately, the May Ball must go. May Week doesn’t have to be defined by its elitism, where fun-seeking college students make a Faustian pact to wait for their peers in exchange for a ticket.
So here I am sitting, with an Emma May prom poster already pinned to my wall, like a scathing hypocrite with a falling amount in my bank account, wondering if there are any traditions we shouldn’t have resurrected after. the pandemic.
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