After pressure from ticket-holders and the St. John’s Ball Committee, the college administration have promised full refunds for the St. John’s College Commemoration Ball.

The St. John’s College Commemoration Ball was set to take place on 26th June 2020. Much like the other college balls and events scheduled for Trinity term, the ball had to be cancelled due to the global coronavirus pandemic outbreak. However, after the cancellation, ticket-holders were surprised to learn that the College was not guaranteeing full ticket refunds, claiming that the college would seek to “honour its financial commitments to providers” such as artists and other vendors. St. John’s had hoped to first look to insurance claims to cover these costs, but then supplement it with money that came from ticket sales. Though the College explained they would “try to minimise” the amount taken from tickets, they claimed that they were under major “economic challenges” at the moment due to the pandemic.

Tickets for the Commemoration Ball were priced at £179 for non-dining guests and £219 for dining. The event was completely sold out with 1577 payed attendees looking forward to the event. The terms and conditions that were outlined at the time of purchase stated that the “tickets for St John’s Commemoration Ball 2020 are strictly non-refundable”, even in the event of cancellation which is out of the College’s control. However, many students were quick to point out that the ball was scheduled for after the end of the UK lockdown dates. In the worst case scenario, each ticket was set to be refunded at £41.95 below the buying price to make up for the costs caused by losses, and in the best case scenario, this refund gap would be slightly lower at £31.05.

This proposal was met with major backlash not only by students at St. John’s but by the entirety of the student body. St. John’s College is reportedly the wealthiest college in Oxford with over £600 million in land and property. However, over the years, the College has been significantly criticised for a lack of transparency and proper management in funds. The fossil fuel divestment protests in February and then this Commemoration ball cancellation demonstrated to students that the College was not prioritising the interests of its students.  

Nonetheless, the Ball Committee was committed to students and last month, they planned to write an open letter to present at the next Governing Body meeting and are trying to persuade the college to make possible full refunds. They guaranteed students they “will be working hard to liaise with vendors and reviewing contracts to see how much of money we have spent so far can be recovered.” Other colleges such as Trinity, Worcester, Hertford, and Magdalen had already set a precedent by refunding ball tickets and St. John’s hoped to use these as exemplary responses.

After much consultation amongst the Ball Committee and liaising with the college administration, the St. John’s College Senior Dean and President have finally sent out an email to their students in which they are now offering full refunds. 

They stated: “Having honoured all financial commitments to providers, the Ball Committee has been closely tracking refunds as they have been realised; at a meeting of the College’s Governing Body this week the matter was discussed as an urgent priority and we are now in a position to inform you that we will be able to offer full refunds for all tickets purchased.”

Continuing to emphasise the financial difficulties that are currently taking place, they also wrote about a new initiative where students can alternatively choose not to get refunded for their ticket, or get partially refunded, and instead, the money can go towards a student hardship fund. They hope students who were able to easily afford the tickets can perhaps forgo the refund as an act of kindness which helps those students who are in need and alleviate financial stress.

They wrote: “This is, of course, an extremely challenging time for many students during the outbreak, who face unexpected costs associated with the abrupt transition to remote teaching and examinations, made more daunting by the equally sudden lack of access to many facilities such as labs and libraries as well as less visible means of support.  The College remains firmly committed to helping students facing hardship and that commitment has not diminished but, in recognition of these highly unusual times and the additional pressures they bring, it has established a dedicated fund to address particular needs which arise because of the pandemic.”

Reasons for the decision to cancel the ball outright rather than rescheduling to 2021 were outlined in an email from the Senior Dean to the Governing Body. Two main reasons were cited: firstly, “the unavailability of our traditional 9th week slot in Trinity”, as St John’s College has committed to host Encaenia in 2021 and “the unsuitability of other slots earlier in Trinity due to disruptiveness in an exam period.” Secondly, the Senior Dean said that with the view that next year “is going to be extremely difficult and unpredictable for a number of reasons…it seemed to us inopportune and ill-advised to be planning to host a large ball.”

The Senior Dean also noted that “the student body is keenly aware of the fact that Exeter and Hertford offered a full refund to ticketholders, and it will seem unfair if we do not follow their example.”

The Senior Dean wrote that the loss made by the College will be at worst, £66k; and in the best case £48k.

The President of the Ball Committee, Senior Dean, President and St John’s College have all been contacted for comment.