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St John’s cancels ball without guaranteed refunds

St John’s College has announced it will be cancelling its Commemoration Ball due to take place on the 26th of June 2020 in light of the coronavirus outbreak. Unlike other Commemoration Balls in Oxford, St John’s will not be postponing it to next year and are yet to offer a definitive refund policy.

In an email sent to students this Wednesday, Professor Maggie Snowling (St John’s President) and Professor Patrick Hayes (Senior Dean), stated that they “are not able to say whether we will be able to offer a full or partial refund for tickets purchased.”

Tickets for St John’s Commemoration Ball 2020 were priced at £179 non-dining and £219 dining and are completely sold out. In the terms and conditions for the tickets, it states: “Tickets for St John’s Commemoration Ball 2020 are strictly non-refundable”, even in the event of cancellation.

Article 7.2 of the T&C states: “If the Ball or any aspect of the attractions at the Ball has to be cancelled or curtailed owing to circumstances beyond the reasonable control of the Ball Committee, including, but not limited to, adverse weather conditions, no part of the ticket price will become refundable.” Some have questioned the extent to which the cancellation is “beyond the reasonable control” of the College, noting government confinement measures do not currently extend to the 26th of June, or a potential later postponed date.

St John’s College is the wealthiest college in Oxford, with The Guardian reporting it owns over £600 million in land and property. The College rejected a Freedom of Information request in December 2018 petitioning for a list of the assets owned by St John’s. In the past year, the college has been criticized by some of its student body for a lack of transparency, exemplified in the divestment protests which took place this February.

The President and Senior Dean at St John’s College did not reply to a request for comment made by Cherwell.

St John’s declared it is prioritizing to “honour its financial commitments to providers” such as free-lance artists and small contractors by using funds from ticket sales to pay for costs not covered by insurance claims. The College has stated it will “try to minimize” the amount taken from ticket sale funds. However, they emphasise the “economic challenges” facing St John’s at this moment due to the pandemic.

Other commemoration balls such as Trinity’s and Worcester’s have either been postponed to next Trinity or offered full refunds to ticket-holders. Hertford College was able to offer full refunds for the ball set to be held in the last week of Hillary 2020, despite its last-minute cancellation.

The ball committee was told that “concerns over the financial pressures faced by the College” made it impossible to promise refunds at this point in time. St John’s explained that the increase in “calls on our resources from students experiencing financial difficulties” as a result of the coronavirus outbreak is one of the main “economic challenges” inhibiting the assurance of full refunds to students.

St John’s College has recently faced backlash from its students for not prioritizing student needs and opinions. This criticism has resurfaced in the College’s response to the coronavirus crisis, and is increasing in response to the ball cancellation.

The College explained that postponement is not possible due to “both internal and external” factors. The ball committee was told by the College that “there was a concern that even restrictions would still be in place in 14 months’ time.”

However, the St John’s Encaenia ceremony is still due to be held in 9th week Trinity 2021, wherein the Vice-Chancellor hosts a Garden Party with a large number of attendees. The ‘Gaudy Dinner’ held for St John’s alumnae has been postponed from April 2020 to Friday of 9th week 2021. Similar dates were suggested as alternative postponement dates in a student-written Impact Assessment published on St John’s JCR page, but were rejected by the college.

The College told its students: “On one level there are problems with all of the different dates. But on a deeper level what we’re confronting is enormous uncertainty next year, with (among other things) the possibility of acute pressure on College accommodation, resitting of examinations, ongoing or repeated restrictions on events, and potentially very high levels of student hardships. In these possible circumstances, we feel it is not opportune to be planning for a College ball.”

In a statement on Facebook, the Committee said they are writing an open letter alongside St John’s JCR and MCR to present at the next Governing Body meeting. They have stated they are trying to persuade the college to make possible full refunds.

The Ball Committee has assured 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.”

A Cancellation/Postponement Impact Assessment for St John’s Ball published on the College’s JCR Facebook page presents two scenarios. In the “worst-case scenario”, ticket-holders would be refunded £41.95 below the buying price. This lowers to a £31.05 refund gap in the proposed best-case scenario. The Assessment favours postponement arrangements based on a comparison of measures already taken by other colleges regarding their summer balls. The Assessment has since been removed from the Facebook page.

A student at St John’s College anonymously told Cherwell: “I no longer see the point in attacking a college governing body that is fundamentally obstinate and, despite all claims to the contrary, does not care about its students.”

Similarly, Alexander Wulfers, a PhD student at St John’s, tweeted: “I am devastated to hear that my college is refusing to guarantee students who bought a ticket for the cancelled commemoration ball a full refund. At close to 200 GBP, balls are a huge expense that many students save for over a long time.

“Lots of now-struggling institutions like our local movie theatre have been amazing about paying back their customers. I never would have expected that the one institution that is not forthcoming about this is my own college.”

A spokesperson for St John’s College Ball Committee told Cherwell: “Although we argued strenuously for a different outcome, we’re now eager to maintain a constructive relationship with the College as we urge them to move forward in a positive direction. The Ball Committee continues to work closely with the College at this difficult time to try and come to a solution.”

St John’s College has been contacted for comment.

Image Credit to Andrew Shiva / Wikipedia. License: CC BY-SA 4.0

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