Why does it cost so much to attend the ISA and PSA conferences?

13 Sep

Our annual Manchester Peacebuilding conference has just ended. This is the third year we have had the conference and we have attracted 100+ people each time. We like to think of the conference as the Ryanair or the easyJet of conferences (only a little more popular): That is, it is a no frills, low cost conference. The registration fee is minimal and delegates do not get coffee and pastries, lunch, dinner, trinkets, a pen and pad, or a bag with the name of the conference emblazoned on it. We do not organize flights or accommodation. The emphasis, we hope, is on what happens in the conference rooms rather than on the frippery.

We hold the conference ‘under the radar’ in that we do not contact the University conference team. That way lies cost and complication. The University, with its internal market, would charge us for the rooms we use (on our own campus!) and burden us with all sorts of forms and permissions. So far, we hope, the conference has been a success. It attracts scholars and practitioners from all over the world. As attendance costs next to nothing (£10 for graduate students and £20 for employed academics) we have attracted a lot of PhD students, many of whom are doing the most exciting research out there.

Our conference would not be possible without an incredible team of PhD students and younger scholars who do the thankless admin tasks behind the scenes. They do not get paid – simply because we do not have the money to pay them. The conference also relies on keynote speakers who are gracious enough to be accommodated in budget hotels and realize that there will be no car at the airport to meet them. Bus and train please.

All of this leads me to consider some of the other conferences out there, particularly the large ones held by the professional associations. How did we, as professions of scholars, get to the position where conferences are held in hotel chains rather than university campuses? How did we get into the position where professional conference organisers (with no idea about the subject matter) do the work and charge handsomely for it? How did we get into the position where it costs hundreds of pounds or dollars simply to attend an academic conference?

Sadly, I rarely hear anyone ask these questions, let alone answer them. Where does all the money from these professional association conferences go? Certainly a little goes to travel scholarships (but the amount is actually quite small). Much of the money goes on running costs for the bureaucratic systems that these professional associations have established for themselves. And fundamentally, is there any link between the cost of attending a conference and the quality of presentations, discussions and critique? I doubt it.

I will finish on a note of whimsy, dreamt up over post-conference drinks. Rather than constantly run our conference on a shoe-string budget and worry if we can cover the keynote speakers’ airfares, we should do things differently. So, for next year’s conference, I propose that we switch from a topic linked to critical approaches to peace. Instead it will be called “War, Oppression and Weapons Systems – A Celebration”. We will charge £1,000 per delegate just for attending. We will seek sponsorship from arms manufacturers. It will be organized by an events company who will offer us ‘the gold package’ or the ‘premium plus’ package. The events company will be staffed by lots of young things called “Poppy” and “Jaz”. They will whizz around with two iPhones glued to each ear and address everyone as “darling”. The attendees, all with fat expense accounts, will be from the governments and militaries of a string of dodgy countries that are mired in suppressing minorities and keeping the ruling elite in power. The keynote speeches will be enthusiastic advertisements for weapons systems and delegates will get a conference pack full of goodies like a personal drone and a torture starter-kit.

WE. WOULD. MAKE. A. FORTUNE.

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3 Responses to “Why does it cost so much to attend the ISA and PSA conferences?”

  1. alanbullion 13/09/2014 at 10:44 am #

    Excellent! I have just let my PSA membership lapse Looks like i should attend Manc next September! Best AB ________________________________

  2. Evren 15/09/2014 at 3:06 pm #

    Why does it cost so much to attend the ISA and PSA conferences?
    Because you either have to be rich or Westerner. You cant be a scholar if you are coming from a non-western & non-rich background. All visas, all scholarships, all currencies are open to the West or to the rich. Imagine applying for a UN internship if you are not a European. How are you going to sustain yourself in such an important and unpaid work for months with a Non-Western passport? Thats the political economy generating the scholarly order.

  3. Chamath Ariyadasa 17/09/2014 at 4:32 pm #

    lol thank you for the insights on the struggles of organising the conference, which I almost attended if not for financial issues. The fact that you bring a lot of people together is testimony to the useful work going on. Despite the struggles of paying for keynote speakers, I believe the format sounds right. A sponsor should align soon.

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