Nothing separates wealthy from poor students so much as summer balls. Harriet Swain reports
HEDONISM is hard when you have been up since the early hours cleaning offices.
But while some students this term will be scrubbing floors and serving beers in an attempt to eke out the remains of their grant, others will be blowing a month's basic income on a single night at a summer ball.
There have been suggestions that the high living associated with universities like Oxford, Cambridge and Durham is disappearing. Pressure on hardship funds at these institutions has increased. Many summer balls are giving way to cheaper, dressed-down "events" and both Lincoln College, Oxford and Corpus Christi, Cambridge had to abandon planned balls altogether this year through lack of demand.
Yet thousands of students will spend more than Pounds 200 on a double ball ticket, while some will choose the more exclusive benefits of drinking societies selected on grounds of wealth and background alone.
"If you're talking about Oxford students themselves being millionaires then it's a mere handful," said Oliver Evans, president of the Oxford Union. "But if it's students whose parents are millionaires then it's a lot more."
He rattles through a list of exclusive, all-male drinking societies, ranging from the Bullingdon, which demands proof of wealth - "buying a Pounds 5,000 bottle of wine or something" to the Stoics which just selects "good men".
Present Oxford undergraduates include Prince Nicholas Frankopan of Croatia, the Earl of Mornington and Tom Parker-Bowles.
This is not an image that Oxford and Cambridge like to push. However helpful for fundraising, it hinders efforts to increase state school intake.
It is also wrong, they say. A survey of students at Oxford, to be published soon, found 10 per cent of undergraduates and graduates claimed to be suffering hardship.
About 9 per cent were working during term-time to make ends meet, although this is frowned upon in Oxford with its short, highly concentrated terms. Two-fifths were falling below the benchmark of the maximum student grant plus the maximum loan, which works out at just under Pounds 240 per month. Six per cent of undergraduates said their parents contributed less than the amount expected of them.
Paul Flather, director of communications at Oxford, conceded that the survey of 1,000 students was based on their own perceptions of hardship. But he said the university was concerned many were in real trouble, especially postgraduates, students with children and those living in private digs.
Ask individual students at Oxbridge whether they have come across any hardship cases and they have to think. One said the only people she knew in financial difficulty had spent too much time living it up.
There is no doubt that there is money about - and not just at Oxbridge.
Alan Proctor, president of Durham Students Union, said: "Some of the students here are fairly conspicuous with their money, driving convertible GTIs and buying loads of champagne."
Every college at Durham has a ball - with tickets ranging from about Pounds 30 to Pounds 100 - and many students will go. But he said there were also a significant number of students in real hardship.
Worst off were those whose parents were refusing to pay up. "Some seem to think it's character-building not to contribute and expect them to get a job," he said. "Some students are office cleaning until early in the morning and then having to work for their degree."
But it appears this term's lavish balls are here to stay.
"Before I came, I thought they cost far too much money," said Tashi Lassalle, president of the junior common room at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. "Once you're here a heady syndrome takes over and you feel you must go to the ball. It's a kind of Cinderella syndrome."
The price of a ball
* Magdalene College, Cambridge Ball: Pounds 220 per double ticket
* Magdalen College, Oxford Commemoration Ball: Pounds 220 per double ticket, Pounds 185 non-dining
* Balliol College, Oxford Event:Pounds 20 each
* King's College, Cambridge Event: Pounds 28 each
* St Aidan's College, Durham: Pounds 45 each dining, Pounds 30 non-dining * Bristol University: Pounds 30 to Pounds 40 each
* Oxford Brookes University: Pounds 25 each
* Manchester Metropolitan University: by department, eg Business School Ball: Pounds 35 each
* Teesside University, May Ball:Pounds 35 each
* University of the West of England: Ball: Pounds 30 each