Free the academic conference

Craig Lundy photoCraig 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.


2016 London Conference in Critical Thought program | Photo sourced from Twitter's @A2K4D

2016 London Conference in Critical Thought program | Photo sourced from Twitter’s @A2K4D

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.
    • 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.

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37 Responses to Free the academic conference

  1. Great practical steps that I intend to follow when organising our own conferences. I agree with everything, and all of these steps (at least considering them) would have to drive down the costs. I think organisers can be explicit and talk about how through the lack of whatever (coffee, snacks, lunch etc) they have been able to lower the costs or provide free places to ECRs and Research Students. I also loved what you said about it being in our control, when other areas of the academy are not. Absolutely.

    Keynotes really do operate differently across different disciplines. For many of us that do keynotes, only the cost of travel and rego is included. There is no way that this justifies an enormous hike in cost unless you have 20 people turning up to a conference. For areas where keynotes are paid for their contribution, we can ask them to consider reintegrating the costs. Because I am already paid by my institution to do this work, the one time I’ve been offered payment, I’ve suggested putting the funding back into ECRs and students attending. I get that not every keynote is attached to an institution, but across my area most are earning a fair bit of money and their institution wants them to present the keynote. Having said that, yeah, keynotes are not always necessary… and we know the all-keynote conferences are dodge-fests, which has to tell us something.

    For my area, if conferences only cost $600, I’d go to a bunch of them, but that’s well and truly at the lower end across my discipline areas in Australia.

    Just recently I’ve noticed that it’s not unusual to get internal requests for funding from academics presenting at Australian conferences and those presenting at international conferences, where both about the same in the overall cost. We fund hotels, flights and rego out of a central fund, and given that some of the regos are nearly 2000 dollars, and some substantially over that amount (and nope, these aren’t dodgy conferences, they’re legit ones), where many of the US equivalents are one or two hundred, we may as well be sending them to internationals each time. When I looked at the (literal) bottom line, I was pretty gobsmacked. Not long ago one that involved zero travel (it was in the home location) cost more than sending someone to SE Asia and paying for rego, flights and accomm. How, why, WTF?

    Just recently I had some colleagues who had put together a conference, an important one across the field, where the rego was huge and I had to explain to them that I couldn’t justify it. When I explained I couldn’t go, one of them acted both surprised (‘surely you go to these all of the time blah blah’) and acted like my institution was doing the wrong thing when it was my choice and I was very clear about this. I have funding, but I’m not spending 3,500 on travel and rego to go to a conference where I would end up doing a lot of the organisation. They then tried to explain to me how I could meet the costs etc, I felt a bit like I was signing up to a dental plan but without the lovely teeth at the end. Needless to say I didn’t go, but when the hint wasn’t gotten, I came out and said this just isn’t on.

    The thing is that you’d think I’d de-identify this without so many specifics, except that this has happened so many times recently that it could have been one of at least three. Why should my institution (or me) give my time and its money to another organisation to basically make money? And I have to say that if it genuinely costs anyone 2000 dollars to form a conference, they are really doing something wrong and probably need to use some of the conference funding to hire someone more fiscally responsible.

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    • Tseen Khoo says:

      For the 3-day confs I attended, I was used to paying about $400 rego. Occasionally, a big association’s 4-day one would be $600 or so. Since I moved into research education (and when I was a grant developer), I’d be approached to attend confs where the rego was in the 1000s. It was shocking, and the fact that they use our sector’s big names, who – let’s be honest – say what they would say if you were to hear them at a free debrief/forum, was even worse (and made their events so much less interesting). And yet they get their bums on seats.

      As you point out, just getting to the confs can be a substantial obstacle already. Dealing with big regos just cuts so many people out of the picture.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Craig Lundy says:

      Cheers Sandy, please do let me know if you come up with other useful tips when you next organise a free/low cost conference.

      Interesting to hear your experiences as well. I’ve had a number of people tell me in the last fews days that $1000+ is not usual in their fields, so it would appear that I should’ve upped my figures in the opening. Making events accessible to ECRs is obviously a huge concern of mine, but I have a colleague who recently made the point that the cost of rego fees has also started to prohibit the attendance of academics on continuing full-time contracts – illustrates just how dire the situation has actually become.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Craig Lundy says:

        *Bad typo in the above, should’ve read 1000+ is not UNusual.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Tseen Khoo says:

        Increasingly, funding to go to conferences getting more scarce. While I’m a huge advocate of social media and other digital means of keeping in touch with one’s professional/collegial networks, it does not replace – and is not the same as – the in-place immersion of conferences and symposiums. As spaces for intellectual exchange, it seems that these gatherings are becoming increasingly exclusive and yet still always expected as part of a researcher’s track-record. It’s a widening gulf.

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  2. Lurker says:

    I was once involved with organizing a conference that made every effort to be low-cost – no ‘conference swag’, minimal catering, evening events where you could pay for your own food/drinks or go for free etc etc. The result – so much complaining! So much whining about everything not being provided. Perhaps add to your ‘things we can do list’: lower expectations!

    Also – our major cost was the host university conference room charges. We couldn’t get around this, but worth reflecting on how much all universities could save if all universities stopped this practice.

    Finally – another major cost was the genius investment of paying a professional conference organizer to deal with a large proportion of the organizing. She was quick, experienced and professional – it would have been a shambles without her (and very nearly was!) Another element to consider in the time vs money equation – it was worth paying to know that senior academics (or unpaid student volunteers) were not expending all their time being inefficient and incompetent conference organizers

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    • Tseen Khoo says:

      I’ve encountered the complaints about not having full conference services and catering before. When explaining about trying to make it more accessible, I’ve encountered a vibe (from more senior academics) that this was an amateurish approach and they did not appreciate it. I think awareness of the inequity in accessing these professional events is higher these days but that kind of response is probably still prevalent.

      I’ve also been involved in events where the committee or convenors decided to self-cater the event (provide the food/drink themselves, $ sourced from a basic rego fee). This can be brilliant when they know how to cater for large groups, otherwise…yeah. I think setting people free to hunt their own food, or BYO, is a good way to go – venue location is crucial then as delegates will need to have a choice and not be gouged by limited offerings. The social downside of this, though, is that there are potentially fewer instances where delegates will be mixing around in the same space and making those incidental connections.

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      • Elf says:

        Personally I hate being “set free” to find my own lunch during conferences. It’s stressful to leave the venue, find places to eat, battle lunch time crowds, race to get back to the venue on time, all while schlepping my conference bag. Add heat, humidity, rain, or snow and I’ll be pretty grumpy and not in any way grateful that I saved a few dollars on the rego.
        It also means there are additional expenses to justify on an expense report. If money is tight, it’s likely I won’t get reimbursed for those meals.

        There are other flow on effects.
        If there’s a trade exhibit, vendors will also be unimpressed if delegates have to go offsite for lunch.

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      • Craig Lundy says:

        Tseen, I think you’re right about the social downsides of having less opportunities where people are mingling in the same room. That being said, as I think you’d agree, there are obvious social upsides if more people are able to attend the event (and this is made possible in part by eliminating expensive catering costs). So on balance I’d say that it’s still worth it doing away with the catering, if there are other options nearby. Catering done by the conference organisers is an interesting option – I’ve never seen that at a big event, though as you say, I can see how it could be hit and miss.

        As for the downsides that Elf expresses, can’t say I agree with you on those Elf. As people have expressed in the comments to this blog, the high cost of conferences today means that a significant number of people are being excluded from attending. In light of this, what’s more important: making the event accessible to all sections of academia, or providing delegates with a conveniently located cut sandwich that is hugely overpriced but fine for those delegates that can get reimbursed from their uni and bad luck to those who can’t? I for one would take the option of there being a few grumpy delegates at the event if it means a host of other academics can also attend that otherwise wouldn’t. As for the extra hassle this causes established academics when filling out their expenses form…let’s just add this to the costs of being an ethically-minded academic.

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      • elf says:

        As I’ve disclosed below, my experience is as allied health researcher employed in either public health services, or NGOs, not academia. Access to conference funding is even more restricted than in academia, even though continuing professional development is a requirement for professional registration and practice. While medical practitioners have extremely generous CPD funds built into their industrial awards (in the order of around $27 000 + per year), most allied health practitioners have NO guaranteed CPD funding as part of their employment awards. Sometime CPD funds are available at the team or department level, though it tends to be patchy. In my experience (and I realise it is a biased sample), delegates have the best chance of getting funding for all or part of the conference rego than for other expenses. This is usually because costs for accommodation, transport, and food fall under the organisation’s travel policies – which are highly restrictive, and require many levels of management approval to access. (For example, international travel requires sign-off from the health district CEO, is only for named authors on a peer-reviewed conference *paper* that was previously approved by the CEO, and cannot be combined with any personal travel.) If food is not included in the conference rego, many delegates I’ve worked with have to self-fund this expense. Some colleagues get quite strategic about conference food in order to minimise paying for things they cannot get reimbursed. For example, they won’t eat breakfast but instead wait until the conference-provided morning tea; they’ll have a big lunch at the conference and pack up extra to eat later for dinner. Removing food from the conference budget might not be a deal breaker, but would factor into their assessment of whether the conference overall was “affordable”.

        Interestingly, one UK-based conference in my field has taken the opposite approach. It hosts its conferences on university campuses, during university breaks, and includes the accommodation (in the on-site student residences) as part of the conference rego fee. They do this precisely because their delegates can often get all or part of their “conference rego” reimbursed by an employer, but not accommodation. Far from being less ethical, this approach actually reduced the out-of-pocket expenses for many delegates and made the conference more affordable and popular for a larger number of delegates.

        And yes, I’m quite serious about the stress and difficulty of going offsite for lunch. There is an assumption here that delegates are physically able and willing to do this, and to do this within whatever time is allocated to the lunch break. Since I work in disability services, the concept of “accessibility” is far broader than just finances. It includes things like whether venues can be physically accessed by delegates who use wheelchairs or have other mobility impairments, or by delegates with eg vision impairments, hearing impairments, etc. The weather adds an additional complication which can genuinely affect someone’s capacity to go offsite to get food. Simply removing food from the conference costs does not automatically make it more ethical or accessible, and could actually exclude people for very different reasons.

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      • Craig Lundy says:

        If I understand you correctly, you’re suggesting that it’s better when a conference offers food/drink as part of their package, even though this increases the rego (usually by more than what delegates actually get for their money), because (a) delegates can more easily claim this back from their employers, and (b) because this is preferable to a situation where delegates, or some delegates, can’t access food/drink otherwise. Regarding the first point, I’m personally more concerned about making academic conferences accessible to academics who have no recourse to funds from their employers than those who do. Based on my experiences and what I’ve heard from other academics, there is a significant number of academics who are unable to attend a conference because they cannot personally afford the fees and do not have recourse to funds from their employer. While I haven’t done proper research on the topic, I’d wager that the number of academics who do have access to conference-attendance funds from their employer, but it covers only the registration fee and the non-covered food/drink expenses puts the event out of reach, is smaller. I get the impression from you that this is different in your field, but in the academic fields I’m familiar with I’d say that in most cases removing the catering costs from the registration fees is to the greater good, though I take your point that this won’t be the case for everyone.

        As for your accessibility point, can’t agree more – it is imperative that food/drink is made accessible to all delegates. You might note that in my original remarks on the topic I started by saying that most conferences are held at locations where there are various private or university-run food/drink outlets available, by which I meant accessible. I also said that in instances where such alternatives aren’t available then conference organisers must provide catering, even if expensive in-house catering is the only option. You make a very good point that ‘accessibility’ should extend to people with a disability – I completely agree, and this was implicit in my initial remarks on the matter. I still think, though, that this imperative can be met by many conferences without relying on the in-house catering of universities. One of the questions that conference organisers should be asking themselves therefore remains: is there a way that we can put on an event that doesn’t involve using expensive catering but still ensures that food/drink is available to all those who wish to access it? The answer to this question won’t decide on its own where the event should be held, but it is nevertheless a significant consideration if the organisers of academic conferences are committed to making their event as accessible as possible – a commitment that I don’t think is as pervasive in academia as it should be.

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      • elf says:

        I wasn’t making suggestions either way. My aim was to highlight some of the many complexities conference organisers grapple with, that perhaps were not considered (or were simply dismissed) in the blog post and comments. The problems described here are not confined to academia; they also affect researchers outside of traditional academic settings. It’s one thing to say that academics and conference organisers are oblivious to these problems or do not take them seriously; it’s quite another to brand certain activities as “ethically suspect”, “morally compromised”, and “unethical”, based on what seems to be experience with one very specific type of conference.
        Personally I find the charges terribly unfair when conference organisers generally work very hard to balance affordability for delegates with a basic business imperative for the conference to (at least) break even. Making that charge against the very people needed to affect change strikes me as unhelpful and likely counter-productive.

        LCCT certainly provides an interesting model for conference organisation, and I’m pleased it’s proving a success. I do hope that it continues to attract the high levels of volunteer support needed to remain viable in the long run. I’ll be honest though, I find it curious that the LCCT website doesn’t disclose any funders, nor acknowledge any real, potential, or perceived conflicts of interest that the funding may present. The only statement I could find was this:

        “LCCT is run by volunteers and funded from a mix of sources – from host departments’/institutions’ budgets, from publishers’ stalls, and so on. ”

        It’s especially intriguing to see funding coming from (I assume scholarly) publishers. Many academics believe scholarly publishers operate under ethically or morally dubious business models. They might be quite surprised or annoyed to know their “free” conference was funded in that way.

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      • Craig Lundy says:

        Elf, I think our conversation here has established that the details of given instances are context specific – something I’ve noted from the outset. Nevertheless, I still think it’s true and important to say that academia has a generalised problem with conference registration fees. This problem, moreover, has an ethical dimension that must be acknowledged. This ethical problem is illustrated, as I said in my original post, by the now normalised situation where ‘standard’ delegates subsidise the expenses of ‘star’ keynotes. If academics act in ways that discriminate against sections of academia (such as those on precarious contracts), then I feel it is fair to bring up the ethics of such actions, even if the academics in question are not fully aware of the impact of their actions. In fact, as I said in another comment, I believe many academics have simply not thought enough about the ethical impact that their support for the status quo has, which is why the major aim of my post is to help raise such awareness amongst established academics (the precariat of academia don’t need convincing). I accept that you don’t agree with my methods, but I’d also point out that nothing you have written has agreed that we have a problem with the current level of conference fees, so I wonder whether our only disagreement is over the best strategy to bring these costs down. You have, on the other hand, just questioned the ethics of the LCCT, on the grounds that we got a publisher to pay for a reception in exchange for having a book stall at the event. I can confirm for you that every person who has attended our events was well aware of this transaction, as we openly advertised it (you might also notice I included it in the ‘tips’ section of my original blog entry above). There may be some who find this particular technique unethical, but I’m willing to wager that the majority will think that the price is worth it if it helps to change the unethical status quo of expensive conferences. Finally, I’d point out that my comments are not directed at conference organisers that do their very best to make the event affordable (bearing in mind their need to break even) – such organisers must indeed be praised to the highest. My polemic is rather targeted at those who do not make such efforts, and I feel that the current extortionate levels of rego fees indicates that (in part) the issue is not being taken seriously enough by academics. As I said in my original post as an example, many of these conferences still pay the way for keynotes whilst collecting registration fees from other delegates. I also pointed out that the very existence of large and successful free/low-cost conferences is a pretty effective counter-argument to the claims some people make about why it is necessary to charge high rego fees. Perhaps in your field there is no equivalent problem and the majority of conference organisers are already doing their very best to reduce fees; if so, my blog post doesn’t really apply to your field, but it does apply to large parts of academia, which this blog entry and comments have explicitly targeted from the outset.

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  3. David Stern says:

    Keynotes are often paid for by sponsors. My finding is that it is space and external conference managers are the big budget item that rego fees have to pay for. However, I don’t see anything “immoral” or “unethical” even if keynotes are paid out of regos or their universities. After all, taxpayers (sponsors are often government) are forced to pay taxes that will subsidize these things.

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    • Matias Hagel says:

      Great blog entry by Lundy. If some academics (permanent staff with ongoing contracts) have a problem with the word “unethical” (conference registrations is one symptom of the privatised university system taking hold in the UK and Australia), then they are just dismissing a phenomenon called casualisation: the army of academics casually employed who cannot pay for these conferences (too many graduates, with PhDs degrees, meaning, with no chance to apply to bursaries). Casuals who cannot pay for conferences are, as everyone knows, doing the equivalent of full-time teaching. Crucially, casuals are allowing permanent staff to do their research (and present/write papers at conferences) and keep their jobs. In sum, the core of the issue is this division of labour, this sort of apartheid between permanent and casuals that is truly unethical.

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      • Craig Lundy says:

        Excellent points Matias, the situation with conferences today is definitely linked in with these other deeply problematic issues you mention. I get the impression that many academics feel powerless to do anything about the generalised casualisation process, and perhaps with some justification. But on this one issue of conferences (though there are many others) I think it’s pretty clear that academics can and should take the initiative in changing the situation. The fact that this hasn’t yet happened indicates that many established academics are actually quite happy with the situation as it is and willing to turn a blind eye. Organised collection action would obviously help, but even this isn’t necessary to change the situation – all we need is enough academics to individually do the kind of things I suggested at the end of the blog, which every academic can easily do if they pause to properly consider the ethical problems behind the current conference system.

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    • Craig Lundy says:

      You’re right that room hire can often be a big budget item, but I’d refer to you to dot point above where I discussed this. As for hiring external conference organisers, must say I’m not sold on this one, if the cost is simply passed on to participants. Imagine I invited you over for dinner but then asked that you give me a substantial amount of money to attend because I’ve hired in some professional chefs to do the cooking. I work from the assumption that academics who organise conferences make a personal sacrifice in order to contribute to their academic community. If things such as external managers can be covered by means other than charging the guests then I’m all for it, otherwise it just contributes to the our problem with bloated conferences fees.

      As for your remark about the ethics, if keynotes pay their own way (by personal funds or their own university funding) then that certainly does evade the ethical problem I raised (though it doesn’t entirely evade issues around hierarchical structures, etc.). If, on the other hand, their registration, travel or accomm is paid/subsidised by the conference, and the conference also charges registration fees to others, then it is unethical for the reasons I outlined above – namely, it is an appropriation of fund from some participants (the less wealthy) to the most wealthy and powerful section of academia. If the event is advertised as a guest lecture and attendees are paying entry to see that lecture then I don’t have a problem with that. But the kind of events I’m talking about are large conferences where the majority of participants are delivering papers and the fact that so-and-so is the keynote is far down on the list of reasons they are attending (if on the list at all). In such cases I have yet to see a convincing defence that defuses my charge of unethical practice.

      I’d finally point out that creative readings of a conference budget – where the keynotes are said to be paid for by sponsors while rego fees arise from other expenses – doesn’t cut the mustard. In such cases I’d obviously suggest that the keynotes are jettisoned and the money from the sponsors is used to pay for some of the other costs, whatever they may be.

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  4. I’m gobsmacked by the cost of conferences in Australia. I’m an ECR who has next to no funding and I’ve just paid $1200 to attend a conference (out of my very small operating budget) because I’ve just moved to Australia and need to start building up my network/finding out about the research happening here. Although I’ve been able to cover my registration, it is likely I will need to pay for my travel and subsistence out of my own pocket. It is interesting that you focus on keynote speakers, as I’ve also heard that it is the venue cost that is extortionate…

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    • elf says:

      Yes, venue costs are huge. The contracts often include a minimum catering charge, based on a minimum number of delegates at a specified daily. Organizers have to cover this even if the actual number of delegates is below the minimum.
      In my experience, it’s very hard for Australian conferences to get the same economies of scale you see in eg North America or Europe.

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  5. Joe says:

    As a PhD student, I’ve tried to find various ways of getting around the conference fees. Some conferences will waive the registration fee if you agree to volunteer for a couple of hours here or there (directing people towards rooms, registering delegates etc). This is by no means a corrective to the structural problems you’ve rightly identified, but if organisers are running to a tight budget, I imagine many PhD students and ECR’s (and possibly higher level academics) wouldn’t balk at the idea of giving up an afternoon for free entrance.

    Like

    • Tseen Khoo says:

      The various confs that I’ve run have always been on a shoestring and we’ve had volunteer PhD students and ECRs helping out pre/during/post conference who had their registration waived. It worked really well and the volunteers seemed to appreciate attending an event while also building up some general skills around event organisation. Whenever possible, though, I would rather pay people. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Mark says:

    I am a part-time postgrad. I support myself by undertaking substitute teaching in secondary schools.

    Recently, I had a conference abstract accepted by a renowned British professional/academic body. When I checked out the conference booking, I discovered that I could only book for the full conference. This was extortionately expensive for me. I was ineligible for assistance as I could not afford membership fees. Also, even if I had been eligible, I could only afford to take one day off work. I basically pay twice to attend as I am paid per day so attendance would entail forfeiting a day’s pay. I would also have to negotiate time off with an employer. Given that I am an agency worker, declaring myself unavailable for work even for one day is not likely to be greeted enthusiastically. I could potentially be jeopardising both present and future work opportunities simply by taking this course.

    My dilemma did not appear to cut any ice with the organisers. I was informed by email that the conference bookings had been arranged in this way to encourage as many people as possible to sign up for the full conference. To cut a long and involved story short, they felt that it was impossible to organise an event which could take into account everyone’s circumstances.

    It seems plain to me from this and similar experiences that conferences are run for many very different reasons. Some of these reasons are quite implicit and only become visible occasionally and a truer pictures of academic hierarchies then emerge. My pointing out how inegalitarian the organisation was in practice wasn’t particularly well recieved. Especially as the event theme was the precariousness of contemporary work: open only to those who aren’t in that position obviously.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Tseen Khoo says:

      That’s a shocker of an experience, Mark! Oh, the irony of the conference’s theme. When the event becomes more of a bottom-line balancing activity than an intellectual or collegial one, you have to wonder what sharing our research in those contexts means. The unsustainability and consistent inequity of the current system for many is taking a while to be heard and have attention paid to it.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Mark says:

        Thanks for the comment, Tseen. Much appreciated. And a really helpful and enlightening piece altogether.

        Reading the comments on here, I am reminded of The Simpsons episode where Marge can be seen reading the magazine:
        ‘Better Homes
        than yours’.

        I think this kind of satire sums up hubristic academic attitudes at least with regard to the conference I applied to:
        ‘Crisis at Work
        (but not at mine)’.

        Like

      • elf says:

        “When the event becomes more of a bottom-line balancing activity…”

        Um … conferences that run at a loss are not sustainable in the long run.

        This blog post (including the comments) has a nice summary of conference costs and reasons for profit/loss:
        http://www.andybudd.com/archives/2011/09/theres_a_lot_of_nonsense/

        Like

  7. Great article, thanks Craig. Earlier this year I was spammed (email and phone calls) by a certain conference company that had organised a conference in my field. It wasn’t sponsored by any academic or professional body that I could see, but it did have all the big names on its schedule.The early-bird rate was $2,500 and each of the two pre-conference workshops was $500. Absolutely cost prohibitive. I was extremely disappointed to see the leaders in my field, people I respect, lending their name to it.

    Like

    • Tseen Khoo says:

      I think I know the company! 😀

      Like

    • Craig Lundy says:

      That’s a really revealing anecdote Michael. My impression is that the current conference scene has become so normalised that the majority of established academics don’t even think about it, let alone question it. This means that a lot of academics who are actually good people end up going along with it, even when the conference is on something like social justice (as Mark’s story above illustrates). If all academics who implicitly support the current conference system were bad or unethical people then that would mean the majority of academia is unethical – perhaps true, but I’m hoping not. That’s why I think the problem is rather that many established academics have simply not considered the issue sufficiently. Perhaps I’m naive, but I’m thinking that if we can get enough academics to at least have a proper conversation about the issue then this could lead to a substantial number of them changing their behaviour, which could then lead to an eventual change in the status quo (if only be the increased prevalence of free/low-cost conferences).

      Liked by 1 person

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  9. elf says:

    Craig, I’d be interested to know if you ever organised a conference while you were at UNSW? I’d love to know of free venues in Sydney that can seat 150 people, and are reasonably close to public transport.

    Like

    • Craig Lundy says:

      Elf, I never suggested that it was possible to get rooms for free at every university in every city. What I suggested is that an organising collective should search around for such an option until one is found. Impossible, you say? Well, there are plenty of examples around to prove otherwise. We at the LCCT have been able to achieve it 5 years running at 4 different universities, and that’s taking into account our geographical restriction to London (which, I would point out, is a place that knows how to do capitalism quite well). Impossible in Sydney you say? Perhaps, I’ve never tried. But if I was to try I wouldn’t start by looking up the directory entry for ‘free venue hire at universities in Sydney’. Our approach at the LCCT has been to use the institutional connections that members of the collective have with their respective universities to locate instances where we can weasel some free rooms – a negotiation/process that obviously changes from year to year. It’s not like the universities we’ve held our conference at are publically listed somewhere as offering free venues to everyone and anyone. So I take your remark that I list for you the free venues in Sydney to be facetious. If it so happens that a suitable venue cannot be located in Sydney at the point in time it is sought by the people seeking it, I would then ask why does the event need to be held in Sydney? One of my main targets with this blog piece are the large association-affiliated conferences which could make better use of their organisational committees and members to find free rooms in any given year (for national/regional associations I don’t think this would be too difficult). But if for some reason your event needs to held in Sydney and your organising collective is unable to get free rooms at a university, why not look for suitable venues ‘off-campus’ that are at least low cost (or cheaper than the uni rates)? Perhaps someone knows someone at a TAFE, or school, or there’s a council building with cheap rates – I’m sure that in any given city/situation there will be a range of different options that a collective can explore. Bear in mind that if you get rid of keynotes then there is no need for a large lecture hall – all you need for a 150 person event is 5 classroom size rooms and a foyer. I think the takeaway point is that academics can be quite clever and resourceful when they want to be, and I’m quite confident that if conference organising collectives put their minds to it they can locate free or low-cost venue options. Even if cheap options can’t be found organisers should at least have tried to find them, and I’m not at all convinced that this is happening at the moment with any great regularity. If you don’t seek, you will not find; if you can’t be bothered to seek, perhaps you shouldn’t be putting on the conference.

      Like

      • elf says:

        Gosh, I certainly didn’t expect such a passionate response.
        My comment was absolutely not facetious. I’m not an academic, and until recently I was employed as a researcher in public health services and NGOs in Australia. I’ve helped organise conferences / in-services / workshops etc for local public health services and for small national professional associations. Most of these events involved less than 200 delegates, with the majority being allied health practitioners with even less access to CPD funding that academics may have. Venue needs were diverse, sometime requiring just a single room for all delegates, other times requiring multiple break out rooms plus trade show space.
        I never said it was impossible to find free venues in Sydney. However I will say from many years of experience that finding suitable, low cost venues in all major Australian cities is difficult and certainly not as easy as asking a mate to pull a few favours. Many organisations – including universities, TAFEs, local councils, churches, etc – now see venue hire as a source of revenue. Many seem to have wised up to the strategies suggested in the blog post and comments, and are working hard to close them off. Venues that do offer low cost hire may offset this by restricting certain activities, or by requiring use of in-house or contracted services for things like catering, audio visual services, and infrastructure hire (e.g. trade show booths). There are also far more legal issues than there were previously, e.g. public liability, food service / safety, and responsible service of alcohol. Venues almost always require formal hire agreements/ contracts which address these issues, and in my view, a national / regional association that didn’t demand a venue hire contract would be on very shaky legal ground if anything went wrong.

        As to the location of an event, this depended on a lot of factors. An event for a local health service usually could not be held either offsite or outside of that geographical area. For national conferences, we weighed up things like prior conference locations (it may be Sydney’s “turn” if previous years were in Brisbane and Melbourne), the location of the bulk of the organising committee, location of the bulk of likely delegates, other affiliated events that could be leveraged to attract delegates, availability of accommodation (e.g. Brisbane city is surprisingly expensive for hotels), and proximity to airports and transport. Our area of research is disability and rehabilitation, and therefore our highest priority was ensuring that venues, nearby accommodation, and transport were accessible for people with disability. This requirement usually eliminated the vast majority of possible venues.

        Like

      • Craig Lundy says:

        Apologies for misinterpreting the tone of your question/comment to me, though I do hope you can see how and why I did (especially when it’s combined with your other comment on the downsides of eliminating catering costs). Finding affordable venues is of course not easy, and it’ll also be easier in some parts of the world than others. All events are also slightly different and can have their own unique constraints with justified costs, as I said in my original blog piece. So there’s obviously no simple formula/set of strategies that can be applied in all cases across the globe. Nevertheless, as I also said in the original blog piece, I’m not convinced that the problem is being taken seriously enough by the majority of conference organisers, and established academics more broadly. In other words, I would contend that the reason for the current situation of expensive academic conferences is not actually because of the (very real) challenges that you mentioned, but rather because the current conference format with its high fees has become normalised and established academics are not doing enough to try and change this. Perhaps I am wrong about this, but the fact that it is extremely uncommon for established academics to talk about this issue suggests to me that is not thought about very much or seen as a serious problem by academia at large. To me this means that while each event will have its own obstacles/solutions depending on the context, the underlying problem, as I stated in the blog piece, is that 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. Of course, everything I’ve said is based solely on my experiences of academia and conversations with academics, so I wouldn’t want to suggest that the same underlying problem applies to areas outside academia – sounds like you would be better placed to say. If it doesn’t, and the problems there are more operational in nature (e.g. the kind of obstacles you mentioned), then I’d say that your field is more advanced on this issue than the academic fields I’m involved with.

        Like

  10. Barbara Piper says:

    This is an important issue, and here in the States it has a profound impact on the ability of part-time faculty (adjuncts) to attend conferences at which job interviews are held, to network in ones discipline, etc. Good on you for raising these issues.

    One difference I see between local, campus-sponsored conferences such as the London Conference in Critical Thought that you mentioned, and huge, mega-conferences organized by professional associations, is that the registration fees for the latter often underwrite the costs of running a professional society, keep membership fees lower (though never actually ‘low’), and in some cases subsidize journal production. I usually find the smaller, no-cost local conferences to be valuable for focusing on a single issue or small range of closely related issues, but the large, national or international conferences are useful for networking, getting a reading on where a discipline is or is headed, meeting publishers, etc. But it does require that we pick which national or international conferences we attend, since the costs can mount rapidly.

    Like

  11. Craig Lundy says:

    Good point Barbara. I’ve been to some of those mega-conferences in America that double as nation-wide hiring events, so I know what you’re talking about – they’re a different kettle of fish (with their own unique set of issues, shall we say). These mega-events were actually the ones I had in mind when I suggested that getting rooms gratis wouldn’t be a real option for every event (since they’re so enormous). I also agree that if membership to a professional society is included in the conference registration fee then it’s fair enough to charge for the benefits that the membership affords (though it’s debatable whether the two should be wedded in the first place). I have no inside knowledge about the organisation of those mega-conferences so I can’t really say to what extent cost-reduction is pursued – if you have some insight on this please do share.

    Like

  12. Michelle says:

    I just came across your blog, and I certainly agree that this is an important discussion. I am, at this very minute today, giving up on attending a conference taking place this week. The conference fee was itself quite low in fact, but I simply cannot afford the flight and accommodation. This is not the first time I have to give up, and it won’t be the last either as long as I remain in this “limbo” of postdoctoral unemployment. Thanks, and keep up the good work!

    Like

    • Craig says:

      Hi Michelle, I’m sorry to hear your predicament, but glad you appreciated the blog piece. Good luck negotiating the postdoc limbo, or ‘wilderness’ as I called it.

      Like

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