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Chris McGovern: Honorary ‘degrees’ promote vanity and tyranny


Bob Geldof has 10 of them, which is 2 more than Alex Ferguson but 3 behind Ken Loach, 5 behind Judi Dench and a whopping 22 behind David Attenborough. Footballers, popular musicians, film stars and comedians have loads of them. This past week it has been the turn of Viv Anderson (Nottingham Forest), Tom Lavin (blues/jazz), David Morrissey (“Walking Dead” actor) and Peter Kay (comedian). To what am I referring? Why, honorary degrees, of course!

This is graduation time and most universities, it seems, wish to spice up the degree ceremony. In recent years, Kylie and Dannii Minogue have been popular choices for these vanity projects, along with pop star Ed Sheeran and Black Sabbath’s heavy metal maestro, Tony Iommi.

In the field of comedy, Bill Cosby has long been the number one choice – at least, over the pond in the USA. He has been awarded around 60 honorary degrees. His kudos for being honoured in the future has somewhat diminished, however, since over 50 women have made allegations against him, ranging from rapedrug-facilitated sexual assaultsexual batterychild sexual abuse, and sexual misconduct.

Nevertheless, honorary degrees have never been more popular. ‘Freebie’ doctorates are being scattered like confetti at a celeb wedding; provided you are a celebrity, of course. Yes, even Bob Mugabe was a celebrity once. ‘Freedom fighter’ and all that sort of stuff; not forgetting the cited reason of services to education in Africa. When he turned to tyranny, Edinburgh University got a bit twitchy. They withdrew his doctorate 23 years after awarding it. Awkward one, that!

Libya’s Colonel Gaddafi, Rumania’s Elena Ceausescu and Syria’s Asma al Assad have caused similar embarrassment to their university benefactors. But, then, bestowing honorary degrees on ‘suspect’ celebs is very much in the spirit of the award’s history. They were, after all, born in corruption through the desire of Queen Elizabeth Woodville to promote the interests and rapacity of her family during the reign of the Yorkist King, Edward IV. ‘Rottenness’ was ever enshrined in the system. The refusal of Oxford University to bestow an honorary degree on the UK’s first female prime minister was another side of this ‘rottenness’.

Is the rewarding of celebrity status really what genuine universities should be about? Why are our centres of learning playing this game? True, there are the ‘deserving’ celebrities as well as the ‘undeserving’. But, whether they are deserved or undeserved, honorary degrees seem to be far more concerned with scattering some celebrity stardust on a university than with any academic merit. After all, we do already have an honours system.

As hard as they may work and however valuably, not many people can ever qualify for an honorary degree. The best the general, non-celeb part of the population can ever hope for is a bog standard version for passing a load of exams at vast personal expense and after working extremely hard.

There were no such expectations placed on those who went along the honorary degree route this week and nor is age any impediment. 19 year-old Fahma Mohamed was awarded the honorary degrees of Doctor of Laws on Friday by the University of Bristol. This was to acknowledge her admirable work to counter FGM. Doubtless she deserved recognition but surely not via a fake doctorate. She has yet to begin her BA studies.

This whole business of bestowing honorary degrees is not only inappropriate, it is a bit of an insult to those students who have toiled at their studies and achieved mastery of an academic discipline. Where are we heading? How about an Olympic gold medal for wooing the fans at Glastonbury or a Nobel Prize for starring in a Star Wars film or a Victoria Cross for managing the England football team?

Perhaps, the only honest award of an honorary degree was that awarded for ‘green’ issues to the muppet, Kermit the Frog. His degree from Southampton College, New York, met all the celeb requirements and has never been revoked. He even got the chance to address the Oxford Union. A fake degree for a fake character! Sounds about right!

Back in 2007, Italy’s higher-education minister, Fabio Mussi, ordered the country’s 66 public universities to stop granting honorary degrees for the rest of the year. He cited the need to protect the “prestige” of country’s university system. Perhaps, we should be doing something similar here?

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Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern is the Chairman of the Campaign for Real Education. A retired head teacher with 35 years’ teaching experience, Chris is a former advisor to the Policy Unit at 10 Downing Street under two Prime Ministers.

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