Do celebrities deserve their honorary degrees?

Emeli Sande and JK Rowling, below, have received honorary awards from universities
Emeli Sande and JK Rowling, below, have received honorary awards from universities
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Is the growing number of honorary degrees for the glitterati demeaning Scotland’s universities, asks Derek Lambie

IT IS the highlight of the academic calendar and the culmination of three or four years’ toil and hard graft for Scotland brightest young men and women. Over the course of the next few weeks, thousands of students will don ceremonial gowns and, finally, collect the degree they sacrificed so much for.

JK Rowling. Picture: Derek Ironside

JK Rowling. Picture: Derek Ironside

But, perhaps this year more than any other, their big day is in danger of being overshadowed, and their achievements belittled, by the growing obsession of universities with handing out honorary degrees to famous faces and turn ­graduation ceremonies into star-studded affairs.

This month Dame Judi Dench, Emeli Sandé and Eddi Reader, to name but a few, will line up alongside their “peers” to collect their degrees, having not lifted a textbook or set foot in a lecture theatre to gain them.

The likes of Donald Trump, JK Rowling, Nicola Benedetti and Annie Lennox have donned robes in recent years and walked off with qualifications that normally take students years of effort, and thousands of pounds, to achieve. Critics are now asking why.

Indeed, with start of the graduation season just two weeks away, university officials are facing accusations that their overuse of honorary degrees is turning them into nothing more than elaborate “doctorate-for-publicity” marketing ­exercises.

There are now demands for the practice to end, with some viewing it as a gratuitous reward for the rich and ­famous.

Last week there was even a plea on air from Real Radio presenter Ewen Cameron for a Scottish university to give him a doctorate in return for him providing “exposure”.

“It has become a marketing exercise, a publicity stunt, by universities,” insists Chris McGovern, the chair of the Campaign for Real Education, an organisation established in 1987 to raise standards in schools, colleges and universities around Britain.

“In effect what is happening is that celebrities are being given degrees without working for them, without putting in all the time, money and effort that students do. In my view, it’s a desperate doctorate-for-publicity ploy to raise the status of an establishment.

“But I don’t think it reflects very well on universities at all, particularly when they clearly want to jump on celebrity culture to bring a bit of spice to graduation day.”

A number of celebrities and other notable personalities will be awarded honorary degrees in Scotland over the course of graduation season this month.

At Edinburgh University, musician Eddi Reader will become an honorary Doctor of Music, while Dame Judi Dench will collect a Doctor of the University award in Stirling “in recognition of her outstanding contribution to the Arts”.

Glasgow will make chart-topping singer Emeli Sandé a Doctor of the University and give Doctor Who producer ­Steven Moffat a Doctor of Letters. Olympic rower Katherine Grainger, authors Muriel Gray and Christopher Brookmyre and Monty Python actor Terry Jones will also be honoured by the same university.

Jones and Grainger will then collect further awards days later at the University of St Andrews alongside former Irish president Mary McAleese.

Others to have collected honorary degrees in Scotland in recent years include Sir Sean Connery, Sir Alex Ferguson, cyclist Mark Beaumont, songwriter Nick Cave, former First Minister Jack McConnell, BBC newsreader Sally Magnusson, percussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie, and former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

The list, it would seem, is endless. Recent figures reveal almost 500 people received honorary degrees in just three years, between 2007 and 2010, at a total cost of more than £100,000. That’s an average of about one every two days.

In terms of UK personalities, Sir David Attenborough tops the list with at least 29 honorary degrees to his name from universities worldwide, while human rights lawyer Baroness Helena Kennedy and film producer Lord Puttnam have racked up 50 between them.

The awarding of honorary degrees has not been without controversy, particularly when it comes to political figures. Six years ago, for instance, Edinburgh University took the decision to revoke the degree it awarded to Zimbabwean president and international pariah Robert Mugabe in 1984 for services to education in Africa.

The practice is not limited to Britain, and last weekend Oscar-winning star Ben Affleck collected a degree from Brown University in Massachusetts.

Honorary degrees have a long history dating back to the late 15th century. Universities in England began granting “honoris causa” degrees “for the sake of honour”, with the very first awarded at Oxford in 1470 to the future Bishop of Salisbury.

The degrees were essentially academic peerages entitling the recipient to full privileges within the university. ­However, the process was open to abuse, with honorary degrees said to have often been used as a way of offering bribes to influential figures. “In Italy the practice was banned for a time because it had become so corrupt,” says McGovern. “In my eyes, the whole practice of honorary degrees is still tainted 500 years on.

“There’s a case for a ban Britain, with the money better spent on education. It has become a celeb-driven affair, something to add a bit of pizazz to graduation day.”

Officially the awards are designed to recognise outstanding achievement in all walks of life, similar to the Honours List. But university principals have faced claims they are devaluing the status of degrees and the work of other graduates.

Scottish Conservative MSP Liz Smith, the party’s education spokesman and an Edinburgh University graduate, agrees. While she believes there is a place for “exceptional” honorary degrees, she has reservations about their excessive use, and the obsession with celebrities.

She says: “They are at their most meaningful when they are awarded for merit in some aspects of academic research or scientific discovery, or long service in the excellence in the field of public service or the arts.

“They should also provide ‘added ­value’ when measured against other graduate and post-graduate degrees and should be very ­special.

“But they can be diminished if they are seen to be awarded to celebrities just because they are ­celebrities, or if they are seen to be a source of marketing value,” adds Smith, a former ­economics teacher at George Watson’s College in Edinburgh.

Universities, for their part, defend the continued use of honorary degrees and insist they have a vital role to play.

A spokesman for Glasgow University said: “Honorary degrees are an appropriate way to recognise the academic, professional, and public achievements of individuals in various fields. It is not surprising that some of the people honoured have high public profiles or celebrity and this shouldn’t exclude them from having their achievements recognised.” «