An academic life has many rewards, including conferences. They are sometimes held in the most wonderful locations and we would be the last to deny that "I have to go there before I die" considerations have sometimes prompted us to submit papers to events in far-flung places.
Of late, however, a new genre of conference has announced itself in our inboxes. These functions are not organised by academics or professional organisations, but by "consultants" and "events organisers" muscling in on the academic conference circuit.
A recent invitation to a conference for "academic women" is a good example. The event promises to "contradict the negative expectations held against women" and has the objective of allowing participants to "uncover the path to destiny fulfilment in education".
Destiny fulfilment? Now that is an interesting concept. Is it really women's "destiny" to rise up the academic ladder in spite of all the "negative expectations" held by nasty academic men?
As academic women, we would have expected a much more rigorous understanding of what it means to achieve in higher education — the sort of understanding fostered by organisations such as the Women's Academic Solidarity Association, which exists at universities such as Rhodes, Limpopo and Walter Sisulu, or the Higher Education Resource Services South Africa academies held in September each year. Silly us! Clearly we have a lot to learn about getting to the top.
Even more perturbing than the dubious conference goals and themes are the "gifts" included in the conference fees. Recent announcements promise free laptops, free shopping vouchers at a national store, a free trip to a world heritage site … Of course, the registration fees are enormous — often as much as R10 000 for a national conference.
The conferences we value
A highly respected international conference might charge up to R5 000, but this will cover the cost of bringing keynote speakers from afar, subsidising students and so on. A conference bag and a pen are the only freebies handed out at the academic conferences we value.
Along with the free gifts of these so-called conferences come luxurious conference venues — Hilton hotels and the like. We might be attracted by the delights of foreign capitals, but academic conferences are run on a shoestring and our budgets for attending them are equally meagre.
This means that only the cheapest hotels are possible and, in some cases, a quick exit to a local supermarket for a cheese baguette might have to be an alternative to the conference lunch if this is not included in the registration fee. Academic conferences are, in fact, often held on university campuses where the venues are free and the joy of sharing meals and coffee times comes from the conversations with academic peers rather than from the cuisine and luxury.
The new genre of conference points in one direction only, of course — the commodification of higher education. A degree has long been a commodity to be traded in the job market. In contemporary higher education, research is also increasingly commodified, either because it is commissioned for a large fee or because it earns a subsidy easily calculable in the form of "research units".
Some universities pay a portion of the subsidy received for each unit directly to academic staff. This means that an active researcher can accrue money in her or his research account that will fund conference attendance, buy equipment and support postgraduate students' research. This money could also fund attendances at the new genre of conference and it could well be the case that "smart" (and dubious) consultants are cashing in on this new stream of funding.
Universities are keen to promote research and meet the innumerable demands related to the demographics of their staff complement and the production of the next generation of academics. A request from a staff member to attend one of the pseudo-academic conferences could well be funded because of these imperatives, an observation that undoubtedly has not been overlooked by the consultants organising them.
Glitz and freebies for proper engagement
But universities need to be vigilant about the quality of conferences for which they are willing to fund attendances. Glitz and freebies are no substitutes for serious intellectual engagement and building the networks that will allow novice academics to forge the kinds of connections and engage in the discussions on which an academic career is based. Money spent on the new genre of conference would be better spent on the provision of mentoring to allow novice academics to write papers they can present at academic conferences and on guidance to use the feedback gained from peers at such events to ready papers for publication.
Some institutions have such initiatives and more are needed. At a personal level, we can also attest to the sense of self-worth achieved from seeing one's name on an article published in an accredited journal and knowing one has contributed, even just a little bit, to the issues being grappled with by the discipline.
As academics, we expect conferences to provide us with a space to present and engage with the work of others in ways that are critical and require thinking of the most rigorous order. The calibre of the conference organising committee is key to quality in this respect. Keynote speakers are researchers, not public commentators, and we expect to be aware of their work in the international literature. Paris, Cairo and San Francisco are but a bonus on top of what is really important.
Therefore, we have decided to take a stand and refuse all invitations to speak at or participate in conferences that are not organised by practising academics and researchers or the associations they belong to. In addition, we have committed to sending a "please remove my name from your mailing list" to all the consultancies sending us these invitations.
Is anyone else out there going to join us?
Professor Chrissie Boughey is dean of teaching and learning at Rhodes University. Professor Jenni Case is assistant dean for academic development in the faculty of engineering and the built environment at the University of Cape Town. Professor Sioux McKenna is the higher education studies doctoral co-ordinator at Rhodes University