Who will field the cost of conference cancellations?

As the world fights to contain the spread of COVID-19, now officially declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO), we see a domino effect as higher education institutions are closing their doors.

This had led to several institutions instigating virtual classes in an effort to prevent further spread of the novel coronavirus and some institutions going as far as asking students to vacate dormitories, sending many students scrambling to find alternative accommodation.

Graduate students at the University of the Toronto in Canada have been dealing with the aftermath of yet another decision aimed at protecting communities from the spread of COVID-19: the cancellation of the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association (AERA) set to be held this April in San Francisco.

Foreheads creased with worry, many a frantic phone call could be heard as students pleaded with airline and hotel authorities to waive fees, with seemingly little effect.

The AERA is one of the largest education conferences in the world, regularly attracting more than 15,000 education researchers from universities and professional associations. With support from the Graduate Student Council, the conference provides a platform for students to share their research, to network and engage with professionals to help shape education policy for the future.

While the cancellation of the physical conference is undoubtedly the correct decision in light of the situation, and a virtual plan is in place, attendees are still scrambling to rearrange plans. In all the shuffle it appears to be graduate students who are suffering the most as a result of the decision.

The need to network

The financial implications of a cancelled conference are massive. It is possible seasoned researchers, tenured university faculty and research groups funded by grants may have some expendable income to book more flexible flights, which come at a higher cost. But for many graduate students who have insecure funding and sparse financial resources at their disposal, booking the cheapest flights and hotel rooms is the price of participation.

Conference attendance is required for aspiring academics, an essential component as they start building their CV. Presenting research and networking with experts are not a matter of ‘if’ but ‘how’ do they make it happen. Forming social connections at conferences can be invaluable for gaining recognition within the community, leading to further research collaboration and future career development.

In an age where increasing diversity and access to higher education is at the forefront, the reality for many contemporary students is far from the traditional vision of the wealthy, elite doctoral student. There are fewer financial awards for doctoral study and many students have the additional responsibilities of families and full-time jobs.

Contemporary graduate students struggle to find both the time and financial resources to write up their research and attend conferences to disseminate their work. When they do, they cannot financially afford the luxury of booking flexible flights and refundable rooms. After all, what could possibly go wrong? COVID-19 was not yet a blip on the radar as notifications of acceptance flooded inboxes worldwide at the end of October 2019.

Who absorbs the cost?

The organisers of AERA have indicated their intention to refund registration fees already paid in the hopes that this will offset any penalties incurred for cancelled travel arrangement. This is commendable and more than many non-profit conferences can afford.

Yet the US$95 refund for early bird student registration is nowhere near meeting the lost cost for those who have been unable to secure refunds and free cancellations. Conference registration frequently exceeds CA$120 (US$83) for student rates. Flights between Canada and San Francisco can cost upwards of CA$600, with locations like San Francisco costing CA$200 per night for a hotel room.

Hence, the four-day meeting, on top of the CA$80 annual grad student membership fee they’ve already had to pay, can cost students more than CA$1,600. And this is before they eat anything. Only a month before the conference, this money is already spent and the price of non-attendance is steep. With airlines not refunding or transferring flights and hotels not refunding payment, it appears that the cost rests firmly with the individual.

Although many students have access to institutional funding for conference attendance, this frequently only covers the cost of registration. And there are a great many students who do not have this funding.

What’s more, grants which cover such costs for conference attendance require the student to present receipts after attendance to confirm they actually went. With the move to a virtual meeting, receipt of travel grants of this nature is no longer a valid source of revenue to reimburse some of the cost already lost.

While some might argue that conference costs are covered through teaching or graduate assistant work and scholarships, or even supervisor’s research grants, this applies to very few students.

There is always the option of sticking to local conferences – providing they exist – however, the cost of the more affordable options is likely a less-competitive CV and hinders chances of securing funding awards, which would enable attendance at future conferences, and so on. It seems like a vicious cycle.

For the majority of grad students without a salary whose attendance is expected, the lost costs sunk into AERA mean that attendance at other conferences are likely ruled out for the foreseeable future. Just how far this may set back their careers remains to be seen.

Alison Jefferson is a research assistant in the department of leadership, higher and adult education, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto, Canada.