Wednesday, July 21, 2004

Honorary degrees

The Independent notes that it's honorary-doctorate-for-celebs-time again in our universities. And, indeed, some of the choices they reveal here are eyebrow-raising. Jenny Bond? Sir David Frost? Inviting people to share the initials that I worked so hard for simply because they are famous and it'll make a bit of good publicity stinks, right?


Not all honorary degrees are like that. I'm not even convinced that the majority are like that. In my graduation year at Aberystwyth, the university awarded one of its honorary doctorates to someone (Trefor M Owen) who virtually no one outside folklore/folklife studies will ever have heard of, but whose work over several decades has contributed richly to his field. Another recipient has been Rachel Rowlands, Aber graduate and Welsh organic farming pioneer.

Let's have a random look around this year. Leicester University's honorary doctorates this year include Peter Preston (editor of the Guardian); Adam Hart-Davis (irrepressible, popularising historian of science, national treasure); Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys (discovered genetic fingerprinting). At Lancaster, there was Dr David Starkey; Professor Tim Berners-Lee (made possible what you're reading now); Dr Ahdaf Soueif (writer); Sir Ian McKellen (actor, definitely celeb, but does look amazing in his robes). Liverpool: Lord Renfrew (distinguished archaeologist); Professor Sir John Walker (biologist, Nobel Prize-winner)...

On closer inspection, as the list above suggests, many of those awarded honorary doctorates already hold 'real' ones; these awards are being conferred for outstanding lifetime achievements in their respective fields, academic, scientific, artistic or literary. And there is always an interesting 'local' sub-set, not usually for 'scholarly' achievement, but for people who are recognised as important contributors to community and social life. (If anything, on looking at a few of the lists, what niggles me are not the 'celebrity' awards so much as the civil servants and diplomats, who already have their knighthoods, OBEs, etc out of the honours system. But that's my prejudice.)

And honorary degrees are far from a new idea. Cambridge points out that it's been giving them for half a millennium (here's this year's line-up. Watch out for all those initials).

It's all very well to select and lampoon a few particularly dubious choices, as the newspapers seem to do every year. But it's bloody lazy. (And I don't necessarily agree that all the Independent's examples are unworthy, either.) I think there's a problem here, but it's not with individual recipients so much as the sheer scale of the thing. It's almost as though it's become compulsory to have at least two at every single degree ceremony (as if they aren't interminable enough already), and that adds up to a hell of a lot of honorary degrees. Do universities need to award quite so many? How many must some people have on their walls by now?

But then, of course, you could say that it simply mirrors the expansion of higher education, not least in the numbers of 'real' doctorates being awarded, of recent years and, indeed, why should it be any different?

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