Conference costs and academic divides

In March 2014, in Gothenburg, during our VIII conference, the Coordination Team of the YAs had a pleasing and stimulating meeting with Rob Atkinson, founder of Urban Research and Practice. At that time, we were launching our journal plaNext (whose first issue is about to be published) and we took advantage of Rob’s presence at the conference to share ideas with an experienced journal editor. Among the topics debated, we were thinking of publishing two issues a year, one stemming from the YA conference, and another one stemming from the Best Paper Prize at the AESOP Congress – a relatively easy way to gather papers, in our opinion. Rob warned us that publishing conference papers only would limit access to the journal to those who can afford the participation to conferences. This was a great point, which actually changed our way to look at the journal – now we are working on one special issue and one open issue a year.

Rob’s point also influenced the way I look at conferences, which is what I want to reflect upon in this post. After a few months, I started to work on the organisation of our IX conference, which was held in March 2015 in Palermo. One of the core objectives for the YAs is exactly to reduce to the minimum the costs of conferences for our members, young scholars who usually have not access to big research funds. This, in turn, entails very hard work to raise funding, especially in some geographical contexts – I wrote a post (in Italian) on ROARS about how hard is to fund conferences in Italy, nowadays.

I think everybody is perfectly aware that, nowadays, most conferences cost too much, with fees going up to 500€. It seems that some formats – i.e., luxurious venues; hyper expensive (and often unappealing) meals and coffee-breaks served by waiters in uniform; crap bags and other material that goes in the trash right after the end of the conference, … – were designed to meet the expectations of an academia which could show off its wealth but are persisting in an epoch in which budgetary cuts are happening in all other sectors of academia.

And, most importantly, hyper-expensive conferences are selectively accessible: geographically speaking, they are among the reasons for the domination of Western universities (better, Anglo-Saxon and Central European ones); and they boost the divide between established, tenured scholars and early-career, increasingly precarious scholars.

Ray Hudson Posse, in a provocative post on The Disorder of Things, highlights the paradox of this situation:

those most in need of attending are precisely those most priced out. While for established academics conferences are little more than an opportunity to blow research budgets on a piss-up with the lads, for aspiring researchers these events are crucial to bolstering the CV and (*shudder*) networking. That is, they are crucial to obtaining a job that will provide them with the means – a proper wage, research budgets, time off teaching etcetera – needed to go to conferences! (And, also, to live).

But it is precisely early career scholars in fractional, contract or zero-hours employment that have limited/ no research budgets and therefore struggle to attend. It is precisely early career scholars that are underpaid and thus unable to pay out of their own pocket. These structural constraints tend to be ratcheted up if you’re a person of colour, not-male, working class, and/or from the global south. On the one hand we can’t afford to go; on the other hand we can’t afford not to go. We need a job to go; we need to go to get a job.

It is time to rethink conferences: on the one hand, we can reduce unnecessary expenditure; on the other hand, we need to find ways to allow early career scholars, especially from less wealthy universities and countries, to have the same opportunities than tenured researchers from wealthy universities have.

Otherwise, more and more fellows may be doing what Ray Hudson Posse suggests to reduce conference attendance costs: stealing conferences, simply not paying (specific hints… in the post).

(Simone Tulumello)

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About Simone Tulumello

Post-doc researcher in Planning and Geography at ULisboa, Institute of Social Sciences. Keen in cities, (Italian) politics, photography, electronic music, and food. Lover of cities, especially Palermo and Lisbon, in a complicated relationship with Memphis TN.
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