Paying the Price for a Good Night
The Cost of St Andrews Event Culture
“It seemed more like a New York gala than a student event in a college town by the North Sea.” Jennifer Conlin wrote in a 2014 article in The New York Times about a St Andrews fashion show. “It was hardly your typical college party.”
While they may not all have the grandeur of a gala, the St Andrews social scene is dominated by events that aren’t “your typical college party.” Invitations to the likes of fashion shows and balls inundate student Facebook pages, with tickets regularly selling out at prices ranging from £50 to £100.
“St Andrew's culture is about events,” Trudy Holmes, a third-year student on the committee of a student fashion and charity organization, says. “It’s the social scene.”
As the number of expensive extravaganzas on campus have multiplied, students say the market price for a night has formed an exclusive campus culture. Conversations with students and survey results reveal that student experiences are often constrained by the cost of social life, with those from low-income backgrounds saying that the school’s event culture exacerbates existing socio-economic divisions.
“There's a struggle to budget, which to some extent is part of what being a student is about,” Thomas Gibs, a first-year International Relations student, says. “But there are just so many outrageously expensive events. The expectation to go to them creates a weird, expensive, culture.”
Even without night outs priced in, student life on the three streets is pricey. St Andrews was deemed the third most expensive university experience – behind only London and Glasgow – in a 2017 Royal Bank of Scotland survey of 35 universities in the UK. Rent is largely to blame for the levy on local life. In 2018, student researchers for the Economic Policy & Research Group found that the town boasts exceptionally high accommodation and rents relative to other UK university towns.
The cost of socializing adds to the steep sums already subtracted from student wallets. Results from an anonymous poll found that among 210 students, some 83% were either “often” or “sometimes” constrained by the costs of social life. Respondents add that events polarize students based on socioeconomic standing, excluding many from the university’s popular social scene.
“I see big groups of students in black tie walking to events through the window of the restaurant where I work part-time to fund my studies, and it’s just hard to see how the other half get to live at university,” one respondent says. “The class divide in St. Andrews is so clear – it feels like because I can’t afford £40 for fancy balls and socials that I’m not really a St. Andrews student.”
While exorbitant ticket prices make it tempting to blame event organizers for the exclusive social culture, they say that they have little sway over them. St Andrews students working on the largest fashion in the UK say that the scale of their event – which has cost upwards of £200,000 in some years – restricts their ability to reduce entrance prices. “We have done everything we can to lower ticket prices while still not bankrupting ourselves,” a member of the committee says. “But we still have a ton of expenses, and ticket prices reflect all of those expenses.”
Tickets, which are priced at roughly £100 this year for their show, have also increased as ticket sales have slumped and event costs have risen up to 20% during the pandemic, according to a student working on the show’s fundraising and sponsorship.
“If someone wanted to donate £50,000, we could lower our prices,” the student says. “But realistically, £10,000 to £20,000 is a really good year for us in donations.”
The student acknowledged that they could downsize their events to make them more affordable, but they say that doing so would be fumbling the charitable and creative possibilities they have inherited.
“It’s hard to take over for a group that's worked so hard for so long and not do it justice,” the student says. “When you have a group of people who are smart, so creative, and so awesome – it is hard not to come up with amazing ideas and then want to bring them to life.”
The Kate Kennedy Club Charity May Ball is another of St Andrews's largest events. It is hosted by the Kate Kennedy Club, which was founded in 1926 to maintain traditions, raise money for local charities, and uphold and improve Town and Gown relations.
Producing May Ball is cheaper than putting on a fashion show. Its tickets – which start at £30 – reflect that difference. Its organizers have attempted to cut costs and superfluous expenditures this spring, lowering ticket prices year on year to attract more students. But as students demand slumps and costs rise, they are pinched. A student with inside information on organizing the ball says that event costs are kept high by production expenses in St Andrews and the incentive to differentiate the ball from similar events.
“If I had to describe what drives up costs in two sentences, I would say that it is the event competition at St Andrews, as well as the scarcity of resources they have for these events,” they say.
The cost to produce an event in St Andrews is raised by the shortage of venues, contractors, and general service providers on offer. May Ball is roughly £50,000 to produce, the student says. “The DNA of the event – just being able to receive people – is already expensive,” they say.
The sheer number of big-budget events on campus further pressures organizers to take on additional fees to make nights more memorable. “How can you have events at a low price, and have people come, if other events are promising people so much more?” the student asks.
Even while committees justify ticket prices, a social culture that revolves around expensive events beyond the reach of many community members. Katie McAdams, the head of the St Andrews branch of The 93% Club – a foundation seeking to improve social mobility – says that event price tags are simply too high for her to attend them. “£50 is how much I spend on food for the entire month. To spend that in one night just seems a bit ridiculous,” she says.
Esther Mühl, a first-year Management student, echoes McAdam. “Most events cost more than £40, which is worth more than my grocery shopping for a whole week,” she says.
Samantha Insall, a second-year Psychology student, says that she similarly struggles to afford the £70 price tag on her field hockey team’s ball. “I play with the team like four times a week, but I just cannot afford to be social with them,” she says.
She is instead forced to parse out awkward explanations for her social absences. “It's embarrassing to not have enough money to go to social events,” she says. “So you make excuses.”
Insall says that this divide contributes to social polarization. “There's a group who feels less included in the University and then a group who don't know about them,” she says. “They don't see each other, interact, or understand each other's viewpoints.”
Along with inhibiting discourse between students from different socioeconomic backgrounds, Mühl says that costly events bar students from the valuable opportunity to network with more affluent students. “The fancy events where basically all the networking happens are out of reach for people with less money,” Mühl says. Continuing, “All these events sort of perpetuate the stereotype that St Andrews is just an elite university community.”
McAdam adds that an exclusive image makes attending the University intimidating for students from low-income backgrounds. “When people from lower-income backgrounds see things like people in big fancy ball gowns going to fashion shows and balls, they can feel like the university isn’t for them,” she says.
Students struggling to afford tickets and committee members alike recognize that the university's social culture ought to be more accessible. A representative from the student fashion show says that they would be open to helping more low-income students attend their events.
Other students expressed the need for more social options, encouraging students to brainstorm affordable alternatives that attract students from a variety of backgrounds.“It would be nice if we had cheaper dinners, something more subsidized, or just more regular events,” Insall says. “Maybe more events could also involve just bringing your own alcohol to hang out.”
The source connected to May Ball suggested that large charity events should join forces to combat the school’s exclusive culture. “Instead of having an event every month, every week, we should just combine them,” they say. “There’s no need for us to manufacture the same thing, or for there to be a pressure in St Andrews to go to each event.”
McAdam says she is optimistic that if the social divisions promoted by expensive event culture are diminished, it would not only make the university a more welcoming place but have a universally positive impact on students.
“St. Andrews is called the bubble,” she says. “I think if we can burst that bubble by having people socialize from different socioeconomic backgrounds, that can make things better.”
The high cost of event culture seems to have battered student budgets and contributed to an exclusionary campus social culture. While St Andrews may never host “typical college parties,” students have identified the need for more gracious gatherings and fewer galas.
“St Andrews is an academically prestigious University, and that’s something to be really proud of,” McAdam says. “But it shouldn’t be a socially prestigious university. It should be somewhere where people feel welcome.”
Students quoted in this article with inside information on fundraising for a charity fashion show on campus and The Kate Kennedy Club Charity May Ball only agreed to speak with The Saint under the condition of anonymity. Out of respect for these student’s privacy and positions in the community, anonymity was granted. The spending and accounts for the events are published on the OSCR Scottish Charity Regulator website.
Illustration: Sarah Knight