September 12, 2004
Are university awards being cheapened by handouts to soap actors and pop stars, asks Judith O’Reilly
A degree these days costs three years of a student’s life and up to £20,000 by the time tuition fees and living costs are taken into account. For a fortunate few, however, there is a way round investing large amounts of time and money — appear in a reality TV show, manage a football club or tell a couple of funny jokes. Welcome to the world of the honorary degree.
Musicians were in particular favour at this year’s graduation ceremonies. St Andrews had the headline act, awarding Bob Dylan an honorary doctorate of music. The American rock icon, who has only ever accepted one other honorary degree, from Princeton, was seen to stifle yawns during the ceremony.
Bee Gees Robin and Barry Gibb also became doctors of music, sharing the award with their late brother, Maurice. They received their degree from the University of Manchester. Their musical careers began in the city before the family’s emigration to Australia.
Dylan and the Bee Gees join a growing band of popular musicians to be honoured in this way. The list encompasses some unlikely names. In 2002, for example, the University of Wolverhampton awarded honorary degrees to glam rockers Slade, whose creative approach to spelling was displayed on 1970s hits such as Mama Weer All Crazee Now and Gudbuy t’Jane.
For an academic institution, such populism would once have been unthinkable. Traditionally an honorary degree was a university’s way of marking excellence and achievement. Cambridge claims it only awards them to “members of the royal family, British subjects who are of conspicuous merit or have done good service to the state or to the university, and foreigners of distinction”. The roll call of those deemed sufficiently worthy by the university includes Albert Einstein, Nelson Mandela and Mother Teresa and, this year, jazz musicians John Dankworth and Dame Cleo Laine.
The reason universities are willing to confer honours on celebrities is that both sides win. The university gets publicity by reaching out an academic hand of welcome to someone famous, while the personality gets to wear scarlet gowns with silk facings and soft black velvet bonnets — sometimes with a golden tassel.
Sometimes nobody is more surprised by the award than the recipients themselves. When the Bee Gees received their honorary degree, Barry Gibb commented: “People who do what we do don’t expect something like this.”
According to Mark Griffiths, professor of psychology at Nottingham Trent University, a famous personality can find an honorary degree immensely validating. “It can be a big boost to the person’s self-esteem to get a degree, particularly if they didn’t go to university. After all, people give to society in different ways. If somebody has made you laugh or made you feel good with a concert, why should they have less precedence that someone who designs a building, for instance?” The way the awards system works is that nominations from the university community are put before a committee of academics, who consider whether the nominees meet the criteria for their institution’s award. (The most famous rejection was of Margaret Thatcher, who was snubbed by Oxford academics while she was prime minister.) The nominee is then approached to see if he or she is willing to accept the honour.
The first occasion an honorary degree was awarded was in 1478 or 1479, to Lionel Woodville, dean of Exeter and brother-in-law of Edward IV. Oxford made him a doctor of canon law in a blatant bid to win the favour of a powerful man.
Universities may be interested in the power of publicity these days but they also seek to acknowledge their communities at the same time. One example of this trend is the honorary degree awarded by London Metropolitan University to Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger. As Roderick Floud, vice-chancellor of London Metropolitan, said: “Arsenal is very close to our north London campus and is very important to the community in which we work.”
Wenger is not football’s only honorary degree holder. This year Jack Charlton was honoured by the University of Leeds, and Italian football referee Pierluigi Collina by the University of Hull. Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson beat them both to it. He was awarded a degree jointly by Umist and Manchester Metropolitan in 1998.
Dr Tim Stibbs, secretary to the University of Manchester’s honorary degrees committee, defends the practice. “You don’t honour someone just because they are famous. There are many things we do in the local community to demonstrate we are not an ivory tower, and this would be one way of showing that.”
Writers are popular at graduation ceremonies. This year Joanne Rowling was honoured by the University of Edinburgh, while Bill Bryson was recognised by Durham University — which was only fair given the glowing comments about the city in his Notes from a Small Island.
Scriptwriter Andrew Davies, famous for adapting classics of English literature for television, was dubbed a doctor of letters by the University of Warwick. Davies also has degrees from Coventry, Cardiff, De Montfort and the Open University. He has now decided that his collection is all but complete. “It would be rude to turn them down, but I have enough now — except if University College London offered me one, because I was a student there.”
Davies’s son Bill spent three years working for a PhD in acoustics at Salford. He is less convinced about his father’s academic credentials.
“My son is quite sarcastic about it and says, ‘I had to work really hard for mine and they are just giving you them,’ Davies says. But he admits that “when you are at the ceremony you are also very aware that all the other poor buggers slogged their guts out for theirs.”
Davies’s five doctorates appear quite modest next to Sir David Attenborough’s tally, which is believed to be at least 19.
Universities are keen to capitalise on their local heroes, too. Warwick awarded an honorary doctorate to one of its graduates, Jennie Bond, the former royal correspondent for the BBC and star of I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here! Liverpool John Moores honoured Cilla Black and actress Sue Johnston, star of Brookside and The Royle Family, with honorary fellowships.
For traditionalists, it has all gone a bit too far. Alan Smithers, professor of education at the University of Buckingham and himself holder of an honorary degree from Manchester, believes degrees should not just be a way of brightening up graduation ceremonies.
“The criterion these days is often that the honorary graduate is well known rather than they have made a distinctive contribution in their particular academic field,” Smithers says. “Now that particular public relations genie is out of the bottle, it can’t be stuffed back in. And that is all right — providing nobody takes it too seriously.”
The Sunday Times broadens the subject to the advisability of the current crop of honorary degrees at universities.