"May Balls are an ostentatious display of Cambridge's disparity in wealth and opportunity."WIKIMEDIA/CANTAB12

Over the last few weeks, Pembroke, Jesus, Homerton and Downing have followed CUSU recommendations and joined a growing number of colleges subsidising May Ball tickets for students on bursaries. I applaud May Ball committees for their efforts to improve access to May Balls. Though these developments are encouraging, our debate about the elitism and exclusivity of May Balls needs to be extended beyond the Cambridge student bubble. Because the hard truth is this: in the most unequal city in the United Kingdom, May Balls are a frankly ostentatious display of the disparity in wealth and opportunity which plagues this city. Subsidies alone cannot solve this.

Improving May Ball access for students – even if every Cambridge student could afford a May Ball ticket – does not negate the reality that there are still people on the other side of our colleges’ gilded gates who don’t have a roof over their heads as they watch us set off fireworks, enjoy various performances and indulge in wining and dining.

“There are still people on the other side of our colleges’ gilded gates”

When I came to Cambridge, I looked forward to attending my first May Ball. They have come to represent the glamour and the glitz of the Cambridge experience in popular imagination, featured even in the Stephen Hawking biopic, The Theory of Everything. This is why May Ball subsidies are so important. No student deserves to feel left out of something which has become so integral to the Cambridge experience.

The debate about the inclusivity of May Balls is a subset of the larger debate about the Cambridge experience. The Daily Mail’s reporting of May Balls stems from a fundamental assumption that Cambridge students should be perpetually “tucked up in our Hogwarts dormitories thanking our lucky A*s”, as a Varsity writer once argued. Splashing out on a May Ball with our friends and loved ones subverts this erroneous assumption: it’s a celebration that we deserve after a trying academic year and a punishing exam term.

Such a defence of May Balls constructs an incredibly narrow view of the Cambridge experience. It is as though the only thing which matters in Cambridge is what happens to us as students, though we share our time and space here with so many others. The Daily Mail’s interest is not as simple as an expectation that Cambridge students shouldn’t have fun. May Balls are so extravagant that you’d be hard-pressed to find something similar, not just in Cambridge but across the entire country.

“We owe it to our community to recognise that May Balls aren’t entirely harmless”

The fact that balls produce huge amounts of waste makes this situation worse, in terms of the wider environmental damage. In 2017, a petition that was circulated and signed by Cambridge MP Daniel Zeichner called May Balls “extremely wasteful”, calling for all committees to have environmental officers. As of 2018, only the Clare May Ball in 2016 successfully achieved carbon neutrality.

The causes of inequality and waste lie in deeper structural issues, which can’t be solved by abolishing May Balls. I don’t want to accuse anyone who attends a May Ball of being insensitive or inconsiderate, because the fun which we have is well-deserved. But I do think we owe it to our community to recognise that May Balls aren’t entirely harmless.


Mountain View

Discounted tickets are just the first step in tackling May Balls’ exclusivity

I went to my College’s June Event last year, but as much as I enjoyed it, noticing the amount of waste produced and seeing homeless people on the streets outside College broke my heart a little. I don’t know if I can go to a May Ball or June Event again without feeling profoundly uncomfortable and guilty. They are indubitably part of Cambridge’s traditions, but let us not forget that we have the opportunity – and the duty – to change them for the better. In the same way that more colleges have come on board with May Ball ticket subsidies, we need to continue supporting efforts such as those by the May Week Alternative and the Sustain-a-Ball project, and encouraging our respective colleges to set out sustainability commitments.

The Master of Magdalene College pointed out that the problem of homelessness and inequality in Cambridge starts with whether we make the choice to look. Addressing elitism and exclusivity in May Balls starts with whether we choose to recognise the people who are left on the other side of our college gates when the fireworks are set off, be they our fellow students in Cambridge or the people we pass by on the streets. This recognition is the first step towards organising May Balls that are more inclusive, not just for our fellow students but for the wider community and the environment as a whole.

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