Fear the zombie student apocalypse

Andy Farnell argues that non-assessed courses could free universities, and the academic undead, from increasing spiritual depletion and a lifeless pursuit of certificates

Andy Farnell's avatar
Visiting Professor
29 Oct 2021
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Beware the academic undead this Halloween
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Halloween cometh and the halls of academia echo with the haunted moans of lost, undead souls. Be very afraid ­– of the zombie student apocalypse.

Teachers are privileged to witness many rites of passage as young people progress to confident adulthood. In a healthy education life cycle, professors meet students in freshers’ week, get to know names, then work together until, at graduation, we bid our intellectual progeny adieu along the road to brighter futures.

But this happy-families model of higher education is faltering. Motives to enter higher education have changed from an affirmative life choice to practical mandate. “Children” progress from primary school to PhD without a breath, living with parents until they’re into their thirties.

This creates zombie students, spiritually depleted and characterised by flat affect, resignation and learned helplessness. They crave reliable, present authoritative figures who can offer meaning but are taught by gig economy adjuncts, surviving one semester at a time in institutions that feel insubstantial.

Ceaseless institutional transformation is the experience of never knowing who will teach you, or whether a department or building will close. Middlesex University abandoned students without any road map of future supervision or facilities when abruptly shuttering courses such as philosophy or psychoanalysis by notice on Facebook.

Without lecturers’ offices where students can pop in for a quick chat, the university becomes an impersonal place. It is no longer a secure base able to contain a learning community. There’s no technological cure for that; indeed the deluge of new digital systems only exacerbates the sense of disconnection.

Some students tell me they feel trapped, marking time on an educational treadmill for a visa or to appease parents. Some really do not want to be there and experience it as trauma and alienation. So why do they stay?

This semester I have been flooded with an unusual assessment load. Beyond my regular marking, there’s a wave of second and third resits. I see students from past years, increasingly dispirited, recycled back into the system. One institution has said students may have an unlimited number of attempts. These are the academic undead.

Something here is unethical. From a selfish perspective, professors are paid nothing extra to re-mark the same failing students again and again, and there’s tacit pressure to pass ones who are unfit. It’s frustrating to see students stuck, circling in stagnant side pools while their peers swim past. Extra tutorials and other interventions provoke bursts of passion, but students sink back into a sense of being deceived about their prospects.

Why is this happening? Some blame lies with sub-par entry requirements driven by profit, but more generally, the changed political role of higher education for warehousing populations within a debt-based economy must be examined.

I think we must face a fundamental dishonesty about what modern education is. Sociological theory of functionalism has given way to a model of financial speculation in which students bet on their own objectified value in a whimsical employment market.

People should gamble responsibly, but tuition fees minus any clear failure criteria is a sunk cost trap like a 419 advance-fee scam. Quitting means losing money, and losing face. Giving more chances and encouragement leads students into false hope and further debt. A perverse incentive exists to admit not the best students but those most likely to stay, similar to the “dark model of engagement” that Facebook operates.

So what is to be done? We must rebuild the compassionate university. Let’s throw out dead and pernicious words such as “engagement” and stop measuring activity as a proxy for achievement. A radical reworking of how degrees are awarded and a fresh and honest conversation about their value and purpose are in order.

Pictures of higher education taken from the pages of Kingsley Amis or Evelyn Waugh perpetuate a feel-good, Hogwarts-esque fantasy of lectures where young minds are expanded, and deep arguments settled by good-natured disputation. Professors up to their necks in policy and admin have no time for such humane, freethinking play. Freed from drudgery, teachers can deliver on the promise of self-actualisation; otherwise we should strike it from the marketing brochures and admit that we run publicly subsidised training and selection camps for industry.

Over-monitoring of teaching has led to safe, mechanical delivery: for example, at the University of Sussex, where Kathleen Stock responded to a recent free speech controversy by saying: “What kind of future does a university have where intimidation determines what is said or taught?” We might already be seeing teachers lose the stomach for creative and challenging lessons. Fortunately, in the UK we are renewing guarantees of academic freedom so that professors can exercise their full expertise without fear.

Perhaps the boldest move would be to concede that we simply sell degrees and to guarantee a uniform certificate for three-year programmes. Eliminating grading would push the selection burden back to employers and free our resources for actual education. We rent spaces and provide a platform for bringing good teachers and students together. No more. No tests, no resits, no final grades. Did Plato’s Academy or Aristotle’s Lyceum award grades? They taught values necessary for an emerging, complex technological society facing the burden of dogma and entrenched parochialism. Seem familiar? Fundamentally, nothing has changed, so departure from a doctrinal curriculum is desirable and possible.

Non-assessed courses would still offer value, allowing students to manage their own portfolio of achievement under the guidance of good professors. At present we have our values backwards. Universities are there neither to serve industry nor to become an industry, but for new life to shape future industry and society. To give living students autonomy, free from crippling anxiety that stymies learning, let’s lay the necrocracy of the certificate racket to rest.

Andy Farnell is a British computer scientist specialising in signals and systems. He is a prolific speaker, visiting professor, consultant, ethical hacker, author and lifelong advocate for digital rights. He is teaching cybersecurity while writing a new book, Ethics for Hackers.

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