My friends and I were talking about the slightly uncomfortable wastage inherent in spraying people after exams – after all, you’re pretty much pouring champagne on the ground. “But then”, someone quipped, “isn’t that just what a May Ball is?”

While this may not be strictly accurate, the image bears an alarming resemblance to my albeit hazy memories of May Balls last year. As our conversation progressed, one friend recounted how at one particular ball, there were no bins – the expectation was that you would simply drop your finished food and drink on the ground, as there were staff employed purely to litter-pick synchronously. Anecdotes like this are ten-a-penny as May Balls seek each year to outdo their own record in terms of size, cost, scale and excess. Thus the question arises: are May Balls unjustified excess or just a bit of well-deserved fun?

“it seems odd that May Balls market themselves as wholly indifferent to the financial constraints of being a student”

The obvious primary issue with May Balls is their financial exclusivity. Long gone are the days when we’d grumble at the £5 ticket price of a year-seven disco, or our £40 year-eleven Prom – with double dining tickets for Trinity and Magdalene costing £530 and £460 respectively, the dent in one’s finances is somewhat harder to stomach than the ‘sumptuous banquet’ on offer. It’s best not to dwell on exactly what one could buy for that money, but the general consensus is that it falls somewhere between a small holiday and a large pet. I went to Rome for a week last year on the money I’d failed to spend on a Jesus ticket. My friend remarked that our college’s drinks budget is larger than her dad’s salary. Consistently described in tabloids as ‘the highlight of the social season’, whatever that means, we should spare a thought for those who can’t afford to go. When richer colleges offer summer travel grants for all manner of feebly-justified gallivanting, and even the Cambridge Union condescends to give reduced membership rates to students on bursaries, it seems odd that May Balls market themselves as wholly indifferent to the financial constraints of being a student.

“a single white-tie clad moment has the power to stick two fingers up at the achievements of Access work which takes place throughout the year”

Financial exclusivity aside, May Balls face also the heavy charge of social exclusion, as a single white-tie clad moment has the power to stick two fingers up at the achievements of Access work which takes place throughout the year. Hypocrisy is rife in our conduct here – in CUSU, JCRs and minorities’ campaigns, we happily preach against using language which excludes or alienates particular groups, yet May Balls bandy around with their own esoteric vocabulary and codes of behaviour. While one could argue that this sense of exclusivity is necessary to the business model, perhaps to secure prestigious sponsors or attract suitably wealthy patrons for the VIP tickets, glimpsing through recent tabloid press coverage of the Balls with an eye to anything other than a new profile picture or the ultimate way to prove your superiority to your home friends, reveals some pretty grim tendencies when it comes to Access.

Firstly, you’ll notice the alarming lack of diversity in the photo-articles. Reluctant as I am to accuse Daily Mail photographers of misdemeanour, it strikes one as odd that every student at Cambridge is female and white. What’s more, the students photographed are frequently described as ‘wealthy’, with one article happily transferring the epithet from ‘posh frocks’ to ‘posh students’ within the space of the headline and lead. With impressions such as this directly contradicting the message that Cambridge is open to students of all backgrounds, and reaching far more potential applicants than residentials and opens days ever could, it is indisputable that May Balls stand for both social and financial exclusivity.

Yet are these things inherently wrong? After all, Cambridge is unashamedly intellectually and academically exclusive. However what seems to happen here is that one form of exclusivity latches itself onto another. If anything, May Balls should draw our attention to the ways in which so-called intellectual exclusivity is bound up in social and financial factors.

Taking a more personal standpoint, referenced in another tabloid is the ‘work hard, play hard’ approach which may perhaps be proffered in justification of the events, and indeed the Cambridge experience in general. We’ve had a horrible term of exams and stress, so don’t we deserve a bit of fun? But the trouble with the ‘work hard, play hard’ axiom is that, while ‘work hard’ is an unambiguous instruction to which we’ve been dutifully adhering since c.2000, ‘play hard’ is a slightly more fiddly turn of phrase which doesn’t hold up well under closer examination. We know how to play nice and to play fair, but play hard? I’d rather play lightly, whimsically, amusedly and amusingly. The mantra suggests we should approach play with the same sense of panic, haste, pressure and all-consuming intensity with which we approach work. Heaven forbid fun could be idle.

Balls aren’t a waste of time – nobody could pretend to be too busy to spare a night – but they’re certainly a waste of money. Organised and commercialised fun can never beat spontaneity, and the best nights in Cambridge aren’t necessarily those with the biggest ents budgets or smartest dress codes. In May Balls, pseudo-hedonism and college Snapchat filters mask social and financial exclusivity to disastrous consequence. So yes, May Balls are unjustified excess – but isn’t that an accusation we should be levying at Cambridge as a whole?