Free the academic conference
12 July 2016 35 Comments
Craig Lundy is a Senior Lecturer in Social Theory at Nottingham Trent University.
After finishing his PhD in Philosophy at the University of New South Wales, Craig held a series of teaching and research positions in the UK and Australia, moving between the fields of Sociology, Cultural Studies and Politics. Most of Craig’s research has focused on exploring the nature of change, and in particular the usefulness of Gilles Deleuze and related thinkers for understanding processes of transformation.
In 2011-12, Craig teamed up with like-minded colleagues in London to create an annual conference with inclusivity at its heart – the London Conference in Critical Thought (LCCT).
This post speaks to one of the issues that prompted the creation of the LCCT: large and unfair conference registration fees.
We have a problem with academic conference registration fees.
Nowadays, it’s not uncommon for a multi-day conference to attract a registration fee in the region of AUD$600 (USD$450, €400, £330). I have seen fees that are even larger, but it is the size of the ‘average’ or ‘competitively priced’ conferences that are perhaps greater cause for alarm.
There are of course exceptions to the rule, but need I say that the exceptions prove the rule, and only highlight our problem. Such sums may not be a big deal to some sections of academia, but they make conference participation prohibitive to many. Bearing this in mind, it becomes apparent what our problem really is: not nearly enough academics on ‘hard’ employment contracts see a problem with the status quo, and even fewer are willing to speak about the problem, let alone do something about it.
The status quo is morally compromised
Conference organisers do their best to put on events that serve the needs of their constituencies, and they generously sacrifice their time and labour for the good of the academic community. It’s important that we acknowledge and applaud their efforts.
Nevertheless, it must be said that the status quo regarding conference registration fees is to a large extent morally compromised. There are a lot of things that could be said here to illustrate the point, but I’ll limit myself to one: while ‘standard’ participants pay a registration fee, it is commonplace for keynote speakers to have their expenses subsidised or paid entirely by the conference organisers, these costs being covered (at least in part) by the collection of conference registration fees.
So, when participants such as students or unemployed/underemployed postdocs pay and ‘star’ keynotes don’t, we have a situation where the least wealthy participants are paying the way for the most wealthy. And I have yet to come across a convincing justification for this situation.
Some might argue that without star attraction then the masses won’t come, but they would be wrong. In my experience, the majority of conference participants do not attend because so-and-so is on the bill.
Some might argue that without star attraction the event is intellectually deficient, but they would again be wrong. In my experience, academics are more likely to criticise a keynote speaker for being disappointing than praise their paper for adding gravitas to the event (assuming they even go to the keynote, which is a big assumption).
Conference organisers are well aware that registration fees have become prohibitively high for many potential participants and that there is a moral responsibility to make conferences more affordable to those with less income. Hence the sliding scale of fees that is now common practice for such conferences, starting from the student ‘early-bird’ member’s rate and going up to the salaried non-member who pays on the day.
Bursaries for students or the unemployed/underemployed arranged by the conference are also a feature of the current landscape. However, offering a reduced rate or bursaries for some participants does not remove the moral problem mentioned above. In fact, such practices actually serve to obscure the problem. If it is wrong for students/postdocs to subsidise the expenses of keynotes, then reducing the level of the subsidy does not make the mechanism right. Even if all students and postdocs attended free of charge, I don’t see why other non-keynote academic participants should pay the way for the keynotes. The band-aid solution that is bursaries/reduced rates for some participants thus does not provide a convincing justification for why keynotes, who comprise the most powerful and wealthy section of academics, should have their expenses paid for by other conference participants. It does, however, help to perpetuate the morally compromised system.
Towards Free Registration
Organisers of conferences with expensive registration fees would likely argue that the fees are necessary to put on a successful, large multi-day event of a high standard. We could debate the various reasons given till the cows come home, but such a debate is rendered unnecessary by the existence of successful large multi-day events of a high standard that do not have expensive registration fees. Their existence proves that it is possible to hold a large annual conference that avoids the ethically suspect model currently dominant in academia.
One example of this that I know well is the London Conference in Critical Thought (LCCT), an annual conference that attracts 150+ participants each year and is FREE for everyone to attend. The LCCT took place last week for the fifth successive year. Of the various elements that shape the ethos and practice of the LCCT, the desire to put on a sustainable and free conference has been a driving force and responsible for much of its success.
To ensure that our event remained free for all to attend we implemented a number of practices, some of which I can quickly mention here:
- No keynotes.
- As mentioned above, the lack of keynotes is hardly an inhibitor to the quantity or quality of participants.
- Aside from liberating a decent amount of the budget, getting rid of keynotes can also free up a lot of the conference schedule (since it allows for more parallel sessions). As a result, many 3-day events fit into 2 days, reducing costs significantly.
- Eliminating keynotes goes a long ways towards creating an inclusive environment that mitigates the hierarchical structures prevalent in many academic conferences (though there are many other great strategies to achieve this).
- In sum, the removal of keynotes may lead to a different kind of event, but doing so leads to a superior event in pretty much every aspect, not inferior.
- Rooms should be provided gratis by host organisation.
- If this is a problem then the conference is held at another university/department where it is not a problem. Perhaps we have been extremely lucky, but in five years of the LCCT we have yet to fail in finding a university/department in London that can accommodate, leading me to suspect that it would be even easier for the conferences of national/regional associations (excluding the mega-conferences that would find it difficult to secure sufficient space outside of convention centres and the like).
- Catering either not provided, or funded by a means other than registration fees.
- Most conferences are held at locations where there are various private or university-run food/drink outlets. The provision of lunch is thus not necessary – indeed, many of the large annual conferences do not cater for lunch (though still charge large registration fees).
- Some universities require conferences to use their in-house coffee/cake catering, but if this is the event’s only expense then it is not that hard to find the money by means other than registration fees. This may require some clever thinking or pulling in favours, but the benefits of doing so are worth it.
- If catering cannot be funded without resorting to registration fees then it should not be provided (excluding the instances where there is no other food/drink available). In my experience, the absence of terrible coffee has never prevented the exchange of ideas between people, but the same cannot be said for registration fees.
- Receptions can be paid for by participating publishers and double as a book launch.
None of these initiatives are all that original or even terribly difficult to implement, but they are not yet common practice.
All conferences are slightly different and may have their own unique and justified costs involved. For instance, some society-based conferences tie annual membership to the conference registration fee. So I’m not suggesting that anything less than a free conference is morally suspect. However, many of these same conferences pay the expenses of keynotes and include unnecessary catering in their ‘package’ to participants, so I remain unconvinced that the problem is being taken seriously.
What we can all do right now
When considering the catalogue of problems in and with academia, conference registration fees is not exactly the most pressing or important. But, unlike things such as the corporatisation of higher education or systematic discrimination, the problem of prohibitive conference registration fees is hardly a complex or ‘wicked’ problem and can be solved by academics alone. The effects of doing so would be significant: aside from creating a more equitable academic environment, I believe it would lead to more intellectually productive events.
Here, then, is the personal challenge for academics. First, speak about the issue and make your opinions known to colleagues.
Second, refuse to take part in the organisation of conferences that perpetuate the morally compromised model.
Third, if you are invited to be a keynote speaker at an event with expenses paid by the event organisers, then it is your responsibility to find out how your expenses are being paid for. If they are being paid for in part by the registration fees of other participants then the invitation should be declined, or alternatively request that the money for your travel, accommodation and registration be redirected to provide cheaper fees for others. If that means you are no longer able to attend the event because you can’t personally afford to (or you aren’t able to obtain alternate funding) then bad luck – that’s one of the costs of being an ethically-minded academic.