Face to face conferences are back, and virtual events aren’t taking over.

I sometimes feel guilty about travelling. It’s a privilege, built on money and greenhouse gas. 

Mostly I enjoy it though. Nevertheless, as the day to set out approaches, like Bilbo Baggins, I often think it would be nicer to stay at home by the fire, or to sit in the sunshine than to drag myself “there and back again”. Once I’m on my way I love it. 

Frequent overseas travel has become a sort of status symbol. People notch up journeys and sometimes boast about the destinations they’ve reached. 

Ostentatious boasting is very much frowned upon in Australia, but travel broadens the mind, and travel stories are popular, so talking about one’s journeys appears to be ok.

It is remarkable how central travel is to university life. Scholars have always travelled to gain knowledge. These days university staff also travel to establish international partnerships and to recruit international students. Universities strive for ‘global impact’, and ‘international recognition’. Travel helps.

One has to work hard to ensure that the emphasis on these things is not at the expense of local, collegiate, contributions. Some universities have academics, who like Tony Hancock’s radio ham, have a friend in every university except their own. 

Global information flows became effortless as we moved online during COVID. I caught up with colleagues overseas more often than I had when physical travel was possible.

 I began to wonder if international and national in person conferences would resume, whether they would bounce back entirely, or just be an option. The experiment was being done – could we survive without in person conferences? Online events were cheaper and more inclusive. Would we flip back or build on what we’d learnt while our borders were closed, and go for hybrid conferences, or a mixture of fully online and fully face to face with digital back up.

As we approach two years out the verdict is clear.

Face to face conferences and travel are back. Digital backup is available for the few speakers who can’t attend, and recordings are often made available to those who missed the event or who cannot afford or manage to be there in person. But overwhelmingly we’ve flipped back. We’ve chosen travel and in person conferences over virtual events. 

Academics want and enjoy going to remote conferences – but are they worth it?

I have to admit this is one of those questions that is hard to answer definitively. Most economic arguments can be contested. Economics is not an exact social science and I don’t have an economic answer. 

But I can confirm that in person conferences have enormous academic value. They enable many things: international collaboration between labs or individual experts with genuinely unique knowledge and skills; the motivation that comes from deadlines (“…I need to finish this in time for the conference”); the element of competition that drives progress and helps top teams to self-assemble; and last, and perhaps least, information exchange. 

If conferences were primarily about information exchange, they could be held fully online. That was tried during COVID but the fact that online conferences have not displaced face to face conferences demonstrates that information exchange cannot be the main contribution they make. The information is almost always out there already in one form or another but conferences are an opportunity to put a pin in the calendar and set aside time to absorb the key information. That is important!

So university staff will continue mapping out each year in terms of their trips to conference. Researchers will go to conferences, teachers will go to share insights into effective educational work, professional staff will go to help each other improve services. Individuals will enjoy the events that fit into that happy space that includes what is fun and what is of value. We will all continue to work on setting the bar of value high so that we don’t waste time, money, or green house gases on frivolous meetings in exotic locations, but I’m convinced that face to face conferences are back.

We will still see good fully online events from time to time, but they won’t drive the traditional conference to extinction.

Professor Merlin Crossley – Deputy Vice-Chancellor Academic Quality, UNSW.



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