Let’s take a look at the real cost of COVID disconnect

The real cost of COVID in the university sector is more than fiscal; it is also social and relational.

Universities across Australia are reducing expenditure by cutting staff, services and funding used to support conference attendance. This is limited to Australian universities. Largely hidden from scrutiny is the very real cost of what we might call the COVID disconnect on many academic staff.

For many academics, attending conferences is an essential dimension of their career because conferences are the academic wellspring. Conferences serve two primary functions: dissemination and networking. They are the incubator in which collaborations are given life and through which connections are solidified.

Paradoxically, while technologies like Collaborate and Zoom enable us to interact in our isolation, these technologies provide the means for keeping us disconnected from each other and limit opportunities to expand our networks. Such technologies are also asserting a very real cost on the potential for innovation, which often grows out of collaborations only rendered possible by presence, proximity and serendipity.

The last several years have shown virtual conferences can be run and, field-of-dreams-ish, people will come. People logged in, disseminated knowledge, people chatted, logged-out and disconnected. All for a very low financial cost. University finance officers and business managers were happy, attendees less so.

The real cost to the academic community, however, has been high. Virtual conferences do not afford attendees the same opportunities as in-person ones.

Presence, proximity and serendipity

Presence is about being fully there. It’s the experience, the spectacle and it’s real. It’s travelling to and being in a new or familiar town or country. It’s entering a charged and exciting physical space.

The conference experience is visceral. It’s anticipation and nervousness, waiting for attendees to usher in. It’s listening to and discussing keynotes, presentations and plenaries over shared meals and breaks.

Proximity, being in the same space, affords opportunities for serendipity not easily afforded virtually; serendipity, the unplanned meetings and chance encounters with others that over time can be cultivated into friendships and productive collaborations.

The real cost of the virtual conference is that it constrains opportunities for serendipity and limits the chances for connecting, networking and community building that can only be fully realised through presence and proximity.

The real cost of the COVID disconnect

As the COVID restrictions on travel are lifted and countries open, academics are looking to return to conferences.

However, the generally successful transition to online conferences and the low cost of attendance is causing many with the authority to approve conference travel to refuse requests for funding, or institutions have entirely removed this funding from their budgets, arguing: “Why do you need to travel and spend time away when you can stay at home, be online, for a fraction of the price?”

By concentrating on the fiscal cost, they are not seeing the real cost of the COVID disconnect on the academic community.

Virtual conferences do not afford the same opportunities that come with being in a conference. For early-career academic staff, growing their networks advances their careers.

Being in (fully present) rather than at (remote) a conference provides opportunities to meet and connect with academic heroes, to be energised and to extend one’s networks. Because conferences are the wellspring, returning from them, attendees are often more motivated, engaged and their productivity enhanced.

The real cost of not financially supporting in-person conference attendance is the potential harm this can have on collaboration, innovation and careers. For early-career academics striving to build national and international reputations in their field, this is linked to promotion and is especially important.

By not providing conference funding, universities are constraining opportunities for new collaborations, the innovation that comes from this and ultimately people’s careers.

As travel restrictions lift and organisers return to in-person conferences, university leaders need to reconsider the real cost to their institutions of the COVID disconnect and the benefits that flow from in-person conference attendance.

Dr Craig Whitsed is a senior lecturer and Rachel Sheffield is associate professor in the Curtin University School of Education, Perth, Australia.