This year four Cambridge colleges cancelled balls planned for May Week (which, confusingly, begins this week), in an unprecedented cull. Others downgraded them, slashing ticket prices, attractions and champagne. Still more were forced to merge.
Is this just an effect of recession or, as some whisper, the beginning of the end of the Oxbridge ball?
The trend is best exemplified by the three-yearly Christ Church Ball at Oxford, traditionally the most glittering of the May Balls or 'Commems' (Commemoration Balls). Six years ago Christ Church was the jewel in the ball calendar. Students from all over the university paid pounds 130 for a double ticket which included champagne, fairground rides, hogs on a spit, string quartets in the hall; a night of riot and unlimited alcohol with a dawn breakfast of strawberries and cream for the survivors.
Three years ago the event did not go so well. Irritation surfaced at the damage caused by the invasion, along with unconfirmed rumours that a security guard had raped a female ballgoer. Last year the college withdrew from hosting any more Commem balls alternately with its traditional partners, New College and Magdalen. This year its ball has been drastically downgraded. It costs pounds 35; double tickets are not on offer; free champagne is not available; numbers have been cut; and it will finish before dawn.
Cambridge colleges forced to cancel through lack of ticket sales were Selwyn (pounds 49 a head), Peterhouse (pounds 145 double non-dining), Emmanuel (pounds 157 double dining) and Girton (pounds 45 a head). Sidney Sussex and New Hall were forced to merge their joint ball with Trinity Hall.
The problem arose partly because the balls are organised autonomously by students in each college, often without reference to rivals, which can mean a flooded market with too many colleges offering balls. This year it was particularly bad, with 16. Given that each has an average 1,000 guests, this meant trying to sell 16,000 tickets to an undergraduate population of 10,000.
The Emmanuel ball president, Jason Noble, sought to form a presidents' committee to negotiate in October, when ball committees begin planning, so that date clashes and an excess of balls could be avoided. But his notes to other presidents proposing the idea were ignored.
Ball presidents say that the crash of the May Balls this year is due to student poverty and, to a lesser extent, a rise in the number of students who prefer spending pounds 20 on beer to pounds 80 on champagne.
Admittedly, some colleges were always going to have problems, being small, unfashionable, or single-sex. Peterhouse's ball was on the same night as Magdalene's, traditionally one of the grandest. Even so, things have got sharply worse this year. Selwyn normally has an annual ball. Last year it had sold 600 tickets by mid-May. By this May it had sold only 250 for its pounds 50,000 event.
'We tried to rejuvenate the publicity campaign but people weren't buying tickets,' said Arabella Smith, a ball committee member. 'A lot of other balls were crashing at the same time and we thought if we could hold out we would get their guests.'
Emmanuel cancelled its ball in March, to the dismay of its first-year students, after selling just 40 tickets. Jason Noble said: 'The reason more May Balls than ever went down this year is that, before, when you got a degree from Cambridge you were almost guaranteed a job. Now people have to justify their spending because they don't have that security.'
He found students were increasingly demanding better value for money: no longer content simply to enjoy a magical evening in a beautiful college, they wanted well-known bands and constant entertainment for the 10 hours a ball can last. For this reason they shun the smaller balls, which have a smaller ticket base and therefore a smaller budget.
Shelly Dolan, Selwyn ball president, believes its experience is part of a trend. 'Balls have become slightly dated. There isn't that same kind of feeling that you have to go. For people who do still want to, either they don't have the money because their grant was frozen three years ago, or they want a really big ball. Selwyn is a small college so it did badly.'
That students who are willing and able to splash out for a ball still want to do it in style, paying the extra pounds 20 or pounds 30 necessary, is borne out by the buoyant ticket sales of Trinity College, Cambridge, which is sold out (double non-dining tickets were pounds 146), and Magdalene, which has sold close to its target of 1,000 double dining tickets (pounds 192).
But even Magdalene has noticed a decline in enthusiasm. 'The recession has hit very hard,' said Peter Boucher, of the ball committee. 'People can no longer afford to go to two balls in the same week. Third years are reluctant to spend the money now if they don't have jobs lined up. Also people who left college a couple of years ago and would have come in the past are less financially secure. Old boys who traditionally come also seem to have been hit.'
Poverty and the financial risk of huge losses explain why a sizeable proportion of Oxbridge colleges are now jettisoning grand balls for 'events' where the tickets cost between pounds 20 and pounds 30, the bands are smaller, and guests must pay for food and drink. These are mushrooming at both Cambridge and Oxford: sometimes black tie, sometimes not, they also provide a good way for less glamorous colleges to provide an end-of-term bash.
Events are something that Balliol College, Oxford, has pioneered since the Sixties in deference to its radical, left-wing image. But the move towards events has not necessarily solved the problem of attracting students. Adam Constable, its junior common room president, said: 'Big balls may be a financial risk for the colleges, but even smaller-scale events are losing money. Ours on 15 May lost pounds 1,000 because it rained on the night, when we expected to sell one-third of tickets.'
That was not the only Oxford casualty this year. Exeter lost a painful pounds 5,000 on its event this term, which will cripple its entertainments committee for years to come, while St Edmund Hall lost about pounds 2,000. Both also blame heavy rain for lack of ticket sales. Anna Rentoul, St Edmund Hall JCR president, said: 'Nowadays students have less money in their pockets so they are going to only one event or ball. It's a far more competitive field.'
There is another problem. Oxbridge students have long been learning a nasty lesson when it comes to buying a double ticket early in the year for a summer ball. By June, the passage of time and the strain of examinations have often caused them to split up with their partner, with whom they are then forced to spend the evening sharing champagne and vituperation, while their new partner or their ex-partner's new partner looks daggers. It was so bad for Jason Noble that he left one ball's revelry last year at 1am. 'I couldn't stand it any more,' he recalled.