Does Cambridge take May Week too far?

25 June 2012

May Week is an integral part of the traditional Cambridge year.

Whether attending garden parties, balls or dinners, the vast majority of students annually celebrate the end of exams in style.

But do they take the occasion too far? Few would argue that hard work doesn’t deserve reward, but the extent to which money is spent regularly attracts criticism from the popular press. Is this scorn justified, or does it stem from jealousy?

Yes: Extravagance is as damaging as it is wasteful, says Jeremy Evans

May Week is a very important part of Cambridge’s academic year. It celebrates and rewards the huge amounts of work that students put into their degrees, and means that the year concludes with merriment instead of the stress that is unfortunately inseparable from exams. But the extravagance involved in today’s May Weeks is unnecessary to achieve these ends, and, I believe, is not good for us.

A typical Cambridge student’s May Week contains at least one May Ball or June Event. In fact, I don’t think it’s a generalisation to say that most of us spend in excess of £100 on one night. This money all contributes towards the contents of the event – I’m not suggesting that tickets are unfairly priced – but I truly believe that the result is not at all good value for money. By simply spending time with friends (eating, drinking, bowling or whatever) an extremely enjoyable evening can be had for, say, £20 to £30, even if it lasts until six in the morning. Raising the cost of an evening simply replaces simple pleasures such as enjoying the company of others with more expensive ones. I simply don’t believe that it’s possible to have £100 worth of fun in one evening.

This, I believe, is the epitome of extravagance: substituting one thing for an extortionately more expensive one without justification. Advocates of the May Ball formula might compare the experience to that of parachuting, or swimming with dolphins, arguing that some events are so extraordinary that they are worth taking the opportunity for, so as to have had the experience. I agree that such opportunities are worth taking, but disagree that a May Ball is one of them. Rather than being extraordinary experiences unlike any other, May Balls merely provide an excessive amount of the sorts of pleasures that normally come in moderation. Not only that, but the sheer number of luxuries available means that no-one is able to sample an entire selection anyway. Give me twenty minutes to wade through a large slice of chocolate cake and I’d have gain just as much pleasure from the experience – and significantly less guilt – than had I been given the entire contents of Fitzbillies.

Is extravagance justification for the claim that Cambridge has gone too far, however? I believe that in this case it is, because of what it does to us as people. We spend an excessive amount of money on disproportionately small personal gain, and attempt to justify it by telling ourselves we deserve it. Yes, we deserve a week of full enjoyment after the work we have put in, but we do not deserve to be able to throw money away recklessly. What could be spent on five equally-as-enjoyable evenings, or on something constructive such as a new bike, or towards a charitable cause is instead wasted unnecessarily. The phrase ‘more money than sense’ would perhaps be overly harsh for this, but I do believe that when such large amounts of money are discarded in this way we should question how much we deserved it in the first place.

At this point I should admit that I too have paid for a May Ball at the end of each of my three years at Cambridge. This is not for lack of questioning such traditions but simply to avoid missing out on some of the most iconic times with my friends. Although I maintain that such occasions could be marked equally well using other, cheaper, means, I freely admit that I don’t want to miss out. What I would find ideal would be for no students to participate in extravagant activities. By reversing what has effectively been ‘luxury inflation’ we could have a May Week with identical levels of intensity, momentousness and enjoyment, but at a reasonable price. Only then could we justify our approach to celebrating and rewarding the effort we put into our work.

Jeremy Evans is a third-year Natural Scientist at Corpus

No: May Balls are an extravagance that we all deserve, argues Rachel Temple-Fry

Cambridge is internationally renowned for its outstanding academic reputation but it is equally revered for its incredible knowledge of how to celebrate and throw a sensational party. May Week provides students from Cambridge with the perfect chance to celebrate in style at the end of a stressful, work-packed exam term, with a week of garden parties, punting, picnics and May Balls taking over university life.

Cambridge May Balls are extravagant, with funfairs, Champagne fountains, musical firework displays and famous artists such as Pixie Lott and Rizzlekicks. And although this receives widespread criticism, very few people I know would turn down the opportunity to go to such an event. A May Ball is often a life-long memory and one which is practically unbeatable in later life. It is a fantastic opportunity to celebrate the year’s success with a group of friends, and a great night with a variety of entertainment. Students get the opportunity to get dressed up, socialise, dance and truly let their hair down, the prospect of which can be a real encouragement in exam term itself.

The May Balls in Cambridge are admittedly expensive, but the price is known at the start of the year and so is easily worked into the student budget if so desired; it is therefore available to almost all students in the college regardless of their background. The balls are not elitist; people from all across the world come to the May Balls, whether as guests or as members of the college and invites are not based upon wealth. People from all backgrounds get to experience a quasi-fantastical event all-together; whether from a council estate in a city or from a manor house in the country, every walk of life is represented. I personally thought I would never find myself at a May Ball and yet that was what I did last night and there was no sense of exclusion in any form that I witnessed to anyone. And you do not have to spend a fortune on a dress; it is perfectly acceptable to buy a £40 outfit.

Moreover, you do not have to drink yourself senseless as the Daily Mail implies, naming it as an ‘excuse to get recklessly drunk’. In fact you can easily go the whole night sober and have better memories because of it. There is so much to do that alcohol is often the last thought on your mind and is just much less exciting than the event itself. This fact seems to argue that having all the entertainment and money spent on attractions is actually highly beneficial as it distracts from drinking.

Furthermore, this high-level style of celebration just seems to me to be befitting of the rest of the traditions of the University which are very elaborate and formal. Therefore it would be ludicrous not to take May Week to a similarly outstanding level, particularly when there is the opportunity to do so. It just wouldn’t make sense to do it half-hearted as that is not what Cambridge is about; it is known for excellence in all aspects of life. Some argue that May Balls have gone too far, but why not push the limits?

There are also parties of this kind elsewhere in the country which get much less media coverage and therefore it seems in some ways an injustice that Cambridge is targeted more by the press merely because it excels intellectually. I think that very few Cambridge students would ever argue that May Week is not slightly crazy and over the top however not necessarily in a bad or harmful way, just as an exceptional week in which golden memories are formed and success is celebrated by everybody as a whole student body. This concept is not helped by potentially slanderous comment from newspapers that distort facts in order to portray their image of Cambridge.

Rachel Temple-Fry is a first-year linguist from John’s