Are ball prices creating a two-tier system for students?

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For the first time since 2019, students are able to enjoy an Easter term without Covid-19 restrictions, and that means one thing – summer balls are back. Colleges and societies alike are going all out to entice students to part with their cash in exchange for a night (or more) of fancy meals and entertainment. Except 2022 is being marred by a cost-of-living crisis that most students have never faced before, so the rising prices of balls are under close scrutiny. 

One swoop of Durfess explains the general mood – for many, balls are simply too expensive. College balls in particular have been attacked over their prices, most of which are set at around £70 or more per ticket. Josephine Butler College has received a disproportionate number of comments about the price of its summer ball (£75 for JCR members), which is perhaps understandable given its reputation of being the college for “working-class” students. However, I feel that all colleges must be held accountable for their extortionate ball prices given the current economic climate.

In some ways, I am appreciative of the difficult decisions that college ball committees have to make, but I do believe that the prices that they set must be questioned. Some organisers suggest that the prices are genuinely the lowest that they can be, given the spiralling costs of venue hire, meals and so forth. However, how does this explain how some societies able to charge much less for their summer balls, (e.g. the People of Colour Association ball only cost £28) or include more for the price of a college ball?

The process of seeking financial support is long-winded, confusing and exhausting

Likewise, JCRs are keen to promote the financial support colleges and the University offer to students who may struggle to otherwise afford the price of a ball ticket. But from personal experience, the process of seeking financial support is long-winded, confusing, and exhausting – for most it is simply not a visible, nor viable option.

The questions over ball prices, therefore, raise a wider debate about how much we value university entertainment. Despite the outcry over prices, every college ball will sell out this year, meaning that there are evidently enough students around who will tolerate the price for the sake of enjoying a night with their mates. Personally, as a first year who knows that there will be plenty more opportunities to attend at least one college ball, I am happy give this year’s balls a miss and spend the money on cheaper forms of entertainment.

However, many finalists reading this may argue that, since they have yet to experience a proper ball free from pandemic-related restrictions, the prices are worth it given how this may be the only chance to experience this “quintessential” part of Durham life. Preferences aside, I fear that ball prices could create another fault line within the student body and produce a two-tier system – one group who can afford to go to balls, and the other group who cannot.

The current system is fragmented and perhaps stigmatising

So can the price of college balls be reduced and made more accessible? I believe that, if ball organisers are a bit thriftier with their choices, that some savings can be made in spite of the looming cost-of-living crisis. Transparency over costs is an obvious first step – people should be made more aware of how their ticket price is used. Butler leads the way having published a breakdown of their ball price, revealing that 63% of the price of their ball has gone towards the venue alone. This leads to another suggestion; given that some societies are capable of charging less for balls, college ball committees must consider using alternative venues, or at least think of ways of trimming costs elsewhere, without detracting from the overall experience (must we need a fairground outside at every ball for example?).

Longer-term, there must be an overhaul of the financial support system for students struggling to participate in university events. The current system is fragmented and perhaps stigmatising, so colleges (and the University) must do more to simplify their support offerings and provide financial aid more swiftly. Finally, colleges should promote alternative events that can bring their communities together for a much better price. College days, for example, are priced far cheaper than balls (free for JCR members at some colleges) and can provide a similar experience to what balls can offer. If the prices of balls are going to stay expensive, we cannot pressure students into thinking that missing out on them is the “end-all” for their university experience – other forms of entertainment are available.

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