Princes and Paupers: Conference Fees and Global Intellectuals

Some years ago I went to a three-day conference in Sydney where the opening keynote was given by a global academic star.

She arrived on the first morning of the conference, having flown first class from United States on a ticket paid for by the organisers. She gave a lively talk to a packed auditorium, fielded questions with aplomb and mingled charmingly with delegates at morning tea. Then as the first session of general papers was about to commence she gave her apologies and retired to the five star hotel room the organisers had booked for her to sleep off the jet lag.

No more was seen of her at the conference. Late the same evening she boarded a flight to Tokyo where she would give another keynote the next day. This was her life: a frantic waltz of planes and taxis, the generic interiors of hotels, lecture theatres and airport lounges, passing through crowds of admirers like a movie star on a red-carpet international tour for a new film. When she was not travelling she could be found in her grand apartment on the New York’s upper-west side where she writes her highly regarded and much-cited books.

This is how the academic conference system works: a chunk of the fees paid by ordinary registrants goes to subsidize the globe trotting lifestyles of a few privileged intellectuals, most of whom could well afford to pay their own way but would probably not come unless they were paid for.

The ethics of this system was questioned recently in a bitter exchange on the email list of the Cultural Studies Association of Australia (CSAA). Marcelo Svirsky from University of Wollongong and Alana Lentin from Western Sydney University (WSU) wrote to complain about the exorbitant cost of registering for the Crossroads Cultural Studies conference, an international event to be held in Sydney in December this year.

Salaried academic staff who are prepared to join the CSAA will have to pay $A540 (£280), on an early bird rate. For non-members the early bird rate is $650 (£330). There are concessional rates for those earning less than 20,000 Euros per annum, but Svirsky and Lentin wrote ‘It is not only that these fees are an impossible barrier for academics without tenure; they are also ridiculous for regularly salaried academics.’

In response and on behalf of the conference steering committee Tony Bennett from WSU wrote:

Crossroads is in fact a moderately priced event. It compares well with other professional association conferences … the costs and organizing challenges of association conferences differ and are not always apparent to conference goers … Crossroads is a conference of considerable complexity that is being organized by volunteers to avoid the additional costs of professional conference organizers. As you yourself noted part of each fee contributes towards costs of a bursary scheme for disadvantaged registrants… There will be no grandiose receptions at Crossroads … An accessible social program is requirement at the heart of hosting Crossroads, which fosters international engagement and community through cultural studies. Clearly one of the other costs of such internationalism is that of bringing numerous invited speakers to Sydney from around the world. Only a few of these speakers are in a position to contribute towards their own costs.

Craig Lundy from Nottingham Trent University responded with a withering critique of expensive registration fees. He cited the annual London Conference in Critical Thought that is well supported, with no fees and no keynote speaks, as an example of a more egalitarian approach:

There is no justification for appropriating money from ‘normal’ conference participants to pay the way for other ‘star’ participants. Offering a reduced rate or bursaries for some participants does not remove the moral problem …

In response to the argument that big-name speakers attract more registrants, Lundy claimed ‘most participants at annual society-based conferences do not attend because so-and-so happens to be a guest speaker’ but would much prefer to present their work at a low-cost or no-cost conference without keynotes. Additionally, he claims, ‘Eliminating keynotes frees up a lot of the schedule, so that a 3 day event can fit into 2 days, thus reducing costs significantly’.

Whatever the merits of the arguments on the conference star system, it is clearly symptomatic of growing cleavages in academic research. At one time universities allocated research time and resources (including conference allowances) more evenly between academic staff. Then they began to differentiate the research active from the inactive, to herd the former into research centres, throw money them and relieve them of the ‘burden’ of undergraduate teaching.

As public funding for universities declined, so they drew from undergraduate teaching revenues to cross-subsidise research. This meant that they had to reduce the costs of teaching, which they did by cutting face-to-face hours, and increasing both student-staff ratios and the teaching workloads of the research-inactive staff, in particular those in various forms of insecure employment.

Ironically, there is now a class of young academics, including the growing army of casual/sessional staff, who are the pack mules of academia. And whatever their intellectual talents, the calibre of their research, they are unlikely ever to find time to publish sufficiently to allow them to graduate to the ranks of the research-worthy, let alone to become one of the research stars who can flit around the globe speaking at conferences like Crossroads without paying a fee.

George Morgan

The views and opinions expressed above are personal and belong solely to the author