Peterhouse students are boycotting their hall and bar this week in the latest of a string of protests against the college’s cancellation of their May Ball.

“There are a few people going to hall, but not many,” said one member of the college. “The catering staff seem pretty peeved and it should be hitting the bursar financially.”

The decision to boycott hall was taken after a number of measures were suggested in a JCR open meeting last Thursday, including students turning their backs to fellows in hall and giving the fellows an ultimatum of one week to reconsider the cancellation.

“Boycotting hall is more to do with the problem of the fellows not listening to us,” said a former member of the Peterhouse May Ball committee. “They just refuse to accept there’s a problem or to talk to us about it or defend themselves. The truth is the fellows have never liked the May Ball and have made efforts in the past to sideline it or set unfeasible targets for tickets sales.”

The student says he is pessimistic about the prospect of actually reinstating the ball and even fears that a ball in 2009 may be impossible. “They’ve said we can have one next year, but they know it’s unfeasible,” he said. “We’ve broken the biennial rhythm now and our agreements with Magdalene. Anyone who’s ever planned a May ball before will have left. We rely a lot on the old boys and girls giving us money, but the college are withholding their names and addresses – information they give out freely for anything else. My opinion is, there’s a good chance there won’t be a May Ball this year or at all.”

The JCR is also instigating a review of teaching at the college after students claimed that the poor exam performance which prompted the Ball’s cancellation was a result of a lack of effort and support on the part of teaching staff. Students were told by fellows, through the JCR President Ben Fisher, that the ball had been cancelled due to wear and tear of college fabric, disruption of the daily operation of college, “costs both visible and hidden” and, finally, the effect on the academic results of the committee. However, many remain unconvinced, claiming that the Ball was cancelled primarily as a punishment for poor exam results, and that this is unfair.

“They said in a letter sent out over the summer that in their opinion the college’s poor academic performance was due to student inactivity,” explained one. “They have put the fear of god into the freshers. At their matriculation dinner a fellow told them in his speech that if they got a 2.ii they would have failed their families. None of them bought tickets for the RAG pyjama pub crawl earlier this term because they’d all been told to work.”

Another student claims that a fellow who was at the meeting resulting in the cancellation told him that, during the discussion of the May Ball issue, it was commented that “if we could just exclude people who got thirds, it would be OK”.

Katherine Sirell, who attended Thursday’s JCR open meeting, said that students at the meeting asked for “more academic guidance such as mock exams and more structured supervision times. The lack of student morale was pointed out as well as the lack of communication and support from the fellows.”

It was pointed out that “if the college are taking such extreme steps affecting students in striving to improve results, they should also re-examine the state of teaching and pastoral support.” The review of teaching at Peterhouse will aim to address these concerns and collect detailed student feedback.

“Students don’t feel supported by their Directors of Studies,” said one finalist. “A friend of mine who graduated last year was struggling before his finals and asked his Director of Studies if they could meet weekly to make sure his revision was on track. She completely refused. That’s not really that uncommon - people at Peterhouse generally don’t have great things to say about their tutors and Directors of Studies.”

The student revealed that the growing animosity between fellows and students was creating “a really nasty atmosphere” at the college. She said: “The Fellows have closed ranks completely and it feels like they’re scheming and working against us. Relationships between them and the student body couldn’t be worse; we don’t trust them.” Ironically, she says, the cancellation of the Ball to improve results is likely to have the opposite effect.

“It can’t be good for academic achievement when morale is so low. There’s a general apathy to work and a lot of bad feeling, and I don’t think this is going to die down quickly or quietly.”

Peterhouse college authorities are still refusing to comment.
Katherine Faulkner