Unleashing academic conferences: “We need to seize this opportunity”

03 July 2020 | Story Laura Rawden. Photo fauxels, Pexels. Read time 8 min.

The University of Cape Town (UCT) hosted the first in its series of digital events aimed at reimagining the new global university on Monday 29 June. Challenging international thoughtleaders on the globalisation of higher education, the first conversation asked: how virtual can academic conferences go?

A return to the old normal, with its privileges and patronage, is not possible – or desirable – said UCT vice-chancellor Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng as she introduced the series. “This moment of crisis presents us with an opportunity to reshape the world, and we should not let it pass.

“Lockdown has forced us to address the problems of internationalisation that we were already aware of,” she said, among them the unsustainable costs of conference travel and its associated impacts on the environment.


“Innovation is needed to ensure we aren’t replacing one inequality with another in the form of digital inequality.”

It has also provided an opportunity to explore new ways of building relationships and encouraging inclusivity.

“This is a time to evaluate when you need to be face-to-face and when you need to be online, and how to develop communities of practice and relationships of trust online,” she said.

Noting challenges in access to technology, particularly in Africa, she said we should challenge governments to ensure the networking infrastructure ensures everyone is included.  

“Innovation is needed to ensure we aren’t replacing one inequality with another in the form of digital inequality.”

Creating equitable access

Two lively discussions followed the vice-chancellor’s remarks, moderated by Kelly Chibale, professor in organic chemistry and director of H3D at UCT.

Phil Baty, chief knowledge officer of Times Higher Education (THE), and Isabel Casimiro, president of the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA), engaged with the types of inequality that conferences – digital and in person – can exacerbate or address, such as patronage, language barriers and internet access.

Even before the pandemic, THE was considering hybrid conferencing models to reduce costs and carbon footprints, said Baty. He noted it was also a way to counter cumbersome emigration processes that make it difficult for some delegates to obtain necessary visas.

Going digital, he emphasised, has enabled greater access and engagement. “We saw more than 6 000 people from over 100 countries register for the seven virtual events we have held.”

Acknowledging that face-to-face encounters are important, Baty argued that patronage and sexual harassment are a problematic element at physical events.

“Digital events can rule a lot of that out and create a level playing field.”


“This moment of crisis presents us with an opportunity to reshape the world, and we should not let it pass.”

Casimiro agreed that virtual conferencing may help eliminate obstacles, such as visas, but pointed out that internet access remains a challenge in various African countries: not all students can afford computers, cell phones and data. She also highlighted language barriers as an issue for those who can’t access simultaneous translation technology.

She argued that African governments and universities should begin to invest heavily in technology infrastructure to ensure a level playing field.

Covering the cost of conference was also raised. Although costs can be kept low as travel and accommodation expenses fall away, free conferencing is unsustainable, Baty said. He suggested a future model of charging a modest fee to meet costs in addition to sponsorship.

Enabling young researchers

Building on the benefits and challenges being described by the speakers, moderator Kelly Chibale, professor in organic chemistry and director of H3D at UCT, invited Dr Katye Altieri, senior lecturer in oceanography at UCT and one of the Vice-Chancellor’s 2030 Future Leaders, to share her recent experience with virtual conferencing.

Altieri had recently presented at a large virtual conference that would have ordinarily been held in Vienna, Austria. It was a “fantastic” experience, she said.

She added that posting her presentation online beforehand drew more considered questions and more dynamic engagement on the day compared to in-person conferences.

However, not all researchers may feel comfortable doing that. “Researchers may be reluctant to share new information because presentations can be viewed online and downloaded,” she explained.

Despite the challenges, Esther Ngumbi, assistant professor of entomology and African-American studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign said virtual conferences can be a great equaliser.

Where in the past, African researchers may have been marginalised, now the “walls are open”, she said.

“Science happens everywhere, and science happens on the African continent. If you’re a PhD or master’s student, or a young career researcher like me, this is your moment.”


“If you’re a PhD or master’s student, or a young career researcher like me, this is your moment.”

Ngumbi suggested that virtual conferences hold the same opportunities for building CVs and making connections with future employers as in-person events. She also noted the potential they posed for engaging those with disabilities and accessing talent.

“Students should demand that universities invite speakers that they may not have had access to previously,” she said.

Continuing the conversation

It’s one thing to have the pandemic move conferences online and extend their attendance to a wider diversity of people, but now we must ask who those people are, said Phakeng in closing.

“We need to ask who the voices are that shape academia and how does this new way of engaging create possibilities for the voices from the global south, and especially Africa, to be heard,” she said.

Addressing this topic is the aim of the next event in the series, which will be held on Monday 13 July: International collaborations: how can we shift the power to Africa?

Register here.


Unleashing the new global university: next up

International collaborations: how can we shift the power towards Africa?
13 July 2020 / 17:30–18:30 (CAT/SAST)

The second event will focus on whether or not the disruption to the current higher education model can bring about a shift in the centre of gravity in international collaborations. And whether it can help us to reimagine a different approach that empowers African institutions to take the lead in collaborative projects and partnerships both within and outside the continent.


The other events in the series:

  • Monday 27 July | Undergraduate student mobility: are virtual experiences a realistic substitute?
  • Monday 24 August | Postgraduate researchers: can we rethink the international experience?
  • Monday 7 September | How does changing the medium change the way of doing things?

Follow the #newglobaluni and join the conversation on Twitter.

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UCT aspires to become a premier academic meeting point between South Africa, the rest of Africa and the world. Taking advantage of expanding global networks and our distinct vantage point in Africa, we are committed , through innovative research and scholarship, to grapple with the key issues of our natural and social worlds. We are committed both to protecting and encouraging 'curiosity-driven research' and research that has a real impact on our communities and environment.