May Balls come with a hefty price tag, both Trinity and John's costing £175, and so risk alienating students from low-income backgrounds WIKIMEDIA/CMGLEE

Cambridge May Balls bring to mind extravagance, expense, and, above all, exclusivity. The move by Jesus College to cut their May Ball tickets by 50% for Jesus students on a partial or full bursary is welcome news in combating this image. The only other colleges to reduce ticket prices, Wolfson and Hughes Hall, have previously given 20% discounts to those on full bursaries, but nothing to this extent has ever been offered before.

However, despite this huge discount, the reduced price is still £77.50. As a state-educated student who receives close to the full Cambridge bursary, £77.50 is expensive for a single night’s entertainment and may still be unattainable for some.

The exclusive nature of May Balls, with their hefty price tags, only risks adding to the alienation many students from low-income backgrounds profess to have felt when it comes to the Cambridge social calendar. The discount for those on bursaries may allow more disadvantaged students to attend, but it also excludes students who may not receive the bursary but are nevertheless dependent on student loans.

“A £150 ticket would be worth nearly a third of that family’s weekly income”

To put it into perspective, those on a full bursary have a maximum parental income of £25,000 per year. Just under half of that (£12,000) was spent on Trinity’s fireworks display alone at their 2016 May Ball. A price of a May Ball ticket is on average between £100 and £150, with tickets for Trinity and St John’s May Balls last year costing £175 per person. A household earning £25,000 per year has a weekly income of £480. Therefore, a £150 ticket would be worth nearly a third of that family’s weekly income. To extrapolate to an annual income of £150,000, with a weekly income of £2,884, the equivalent ticket worth a third of that family’s weekly income would cost nearly £900. It is then easy to see why £100 to £200 can be such a lot of money to spend on a ticket. The steps that Jesus, Wolfson and Hughes Hall have taken mark admirable progress in this respect, but this is not yet enough.

The opportunity for students to work at May Balls does provide the chance for students to earn some money and attend the event at a discounted price; however, ideally it would not be necessary at all. The system, to an extent, perpetuates the divide between those who can and those who cannot afford to go to May Balls. In 2018, improving significantly on the previous arrangement where ‘volunteers’ were reimbursed with the opportunity to buy a ticket to next year’s ball, Trinity’s committee announced that workers would be paid at least the minimum wage. This year St John’s has advertised that they will pay under 25s £7.50 an hour, and for those working a 6 hour shift during set-up and clear-up, they will reduce the ticket price for the following year by £45, to reflect the same wage. However, the remaining ticket price would still be close to £150, which may be inaccessible to students from lower-income families. Some students have to work a ball in order to attend in the first place, and some can’t afford a ticket even then. For those students from lower-income backgrounds who can afford ball tickets, the price of those balls still represents a greater level of commitment. The system can divide richer and poorer students and certainly doesn’t promote inclusivity.

It can be an intimidating prospect for someone from a less advantaged background to apply to Cambridge. The social pressure to attend May Balls, and the assumption that students will go to multiple May Week events, means that those from low-income families, discouraged by expensive tickets, are prevented from feeling fully integrated into Cambridge life.


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Discounted tickets are a great start in tackling the problem of the exclusivity of May Balls and it would be excellent if more colleges followed suit. The improvement of workers’ pay is also encouraging. However, the worker system does not fully address or resolve the issues of accessibility for lower-income students. Perhaps the solution would be to lower the price of tickets for all and have a smaller budget for May Balls. A shift in the social emphasis on the extravagance and exclusivity of May Balls to one of inclusivity would also be a step towards making low-income students feel more included. A solution would have to tackle both the social perception and economic exclusivity of May Balls as they currently are.

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