Martyn McLaughlin: Degrees for famous and wealthy should end

Donald Trump received an honourary degree from Robert Gordon University
Donald Trump received an honourary degree from Robert Gordon University
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The announcement that David Tennant is to receive an honorary degree From the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland is the first flush of the annual farce that sees universities across the country undermine their hard won reputations for the sake of a few column inches of newsprint.

To his credit, the actor stands apart from most recipients of these awards in that he will be returning to his alma mater. He may already be a doctor in the public’s eye, but given their ties predate his fame, he and the Royal Conservatoire deserve their moment in the sun.

Unfortunately, Tennant is the exception rather than the rule. Too often, our esteemed institutes value the fleeting endorsement of celebrity over the sanctity of the degree system. While undergraduates who have toiled for years don their gowns and mortarboards for a day that recognises their industry and sacrifice, their well-kent counterparts - who often have no tangible connection with the institutions - enjoy the same acclaim, effectively a payment in lieu for their personal appearance fee.

Since 2007, three of Scotland’s ancient universities have bestowed an astounding 599 honorifics. The University of Edinburgh leads the way with 259, followed by Glasgow on 196 and St Andrews on 144. Cumulatively, these rarified seats of learning have issued honorary degrees and doctorates at a rate of more than one a week.

It is important to note that this roll call includes a host of estimable figures from a wide field of disciplines who have diligently contributed to the public good.

For example, Glasgow gave an honorary doctorate of law to Sister Helen Prejean, the inspirational United States nun who has been a tireless advocate for the abolition of the death penalty. Such individuals carry out largely unheralded work and it would be churlish to deny them - and the universities - the opportunity for a mutually beneficial afternoon and a flute or four of Prosecco.

This kind of sage judgment would legitimise a historic practice were it not for the fact its credence has been dealt a fatal blow by those who stand in line to receive their accolades on flimsier pretexts.

Among those recognised by the triumvirate of institutions above are academic titans such as Elaine C Smith, Annie Lennox and Colin Montgomerie. Indeed, golfers seem to enjoy an inexplicable influence at senate level; St Andrews alone has accepted Arnold Palmer, Tom Watson, Jack Nicklaus, Seve Ballesteros, Gary Player, Nick Faldo and Padraig Harrington into its guild.

Perhaps the university is intent on staging its own competition on the town’s links. What other justification is there for these awards other than to fawn over the famous?

Venture further into the world of Scottish learning and it is not difficult to find evidence with which to support this surmisal. Other beneficiaries at graduation ceremonies include Susan Boyle, Lulu, Michelle Mone and Emile Sande. In order to find four doctors of a similar pedigree, you would have to venture over the Tijuana border.

Universities reason that honorary degrees and doctorates are a means of recognising the achievements of individuals across a broad spectrum of disciplines, a meagre argument which betrays their lust for stardust. Even when circumstance compels them to rescind an honour, as Robert Gordon University did with Donald Trump, while bleating about its ethos, the revokement is as hollow a gesture as the initial inducement.

Perhaps the most unedifying and brazen use of these degrees is to curry favour with the influential and wealthy. In 2010, Glasgow bestowed an honorary doctorate on Professor Zihe Rao, president of China’s Nankai University. The following year, Glasgow launched its Confucious Institute in partnership with Nankai. Three years later came the Glasgow-Nankai Partnership and Joint Graduate School, founded, its website purrs, “with the approval of the Chinese Ministry of Education”.

Or then there is the decision by Edinburgh in 2010 to recognise Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, the billionaire magnate and member of the Saudi royal family. By a quirk of coincidence, this is the same Prince Alwaleed bin Talal after whom the university’s Alwaleed Centre was founded the previous year, thanks to his “generous endorsement.”

Universities are entitled to give thanks to their benefactors, but why must it take such a sycophantic form that makes a mockery of ordinary undergraduates? Now is as good a time as any to consider an alternative gesture given Scotland’s universities boast the worst student drop-out rates in the UK. While parchments are dished out to those who have excelled in televised talent contests or simply have deep pockets, eight per cent of those who enrolled on a degree course in 2016 will leave before the start of their second year.

In the US, several well-known institutes promote a longstanding tradition of meritocracy. Since 1868, for example, every degree given out by MIT has been earned by academic labour alone. Its founder, William Barton Rogers, dismissed the alternative as a form of “literary almsgiving” and resolved to “firmly bar the door against the demands of spurious merit and noisy popularity.”

Scotland’s universities continue to be held in international regard, but they would do well to remember the prestige of degrees depends on how they are earned: through hard work, not privilege or status. Otherwise, they will eventually be reduced to the status of lifetime membership of the Desperate Dan Pie-Eater’s Club.