A few weeks ago, I had dinner with an old friend, a Scot, whose contribution to the media only the most uncharitable would describe as negligible. Although not quite a household name, he had risen high in his profession and had made his mark. He had not always been popular but, as he said, that was not why he was employed. He had upset a few people, some unwittingly, some of them windbags, most of them living in Edinburgh’s New Town.
Over dinner, I suggested that he deserved to get a gong. He winced. “Well,” I said, “at the very least you ought to get an honorary degree from your alma mater.”
He had gone either to Edinburgh or Glasgow University, it matters not which. He was not impressed. Why, he said, should he be rewarded for simply doing a job for which he had been well paid? “In any case,” he said, “the whole thing has now been so devalued, it’s worthless. It must be if you think that the likes of me are worthy of it.”
And so to Oxford, city of Jude the Obscure, Inspector Morse and a traffic system apparently modelled on the Hampton Court maze. It is high summer, a day of incontinent sunshine, with that ineffable end-of-term aura. On the lawns of Wadham College, so near yet so far from the madding shoppers and belligerent motorists, newly gowned graduates and their beaming parents mingle with the dons and their flowery-frocked wives. There are strawberries and cream, thimblefuls of warm wine, milky tea and dainty pastries.
It is a quintessentially British happening, like a garden fete or a gymkhana, which would surely flummox a visitor from Mars. It is a stereotype that is general across the land, all of the nation’s universities attempting to outdo their rivals with their hospitality. Summer’s lease hath all too short a date and must cram in many such occasions, rites of passage that revel in the arcane and the unfathomable. To the outsider, untutored in the mores of academia, it is a subject worthy of a PhD in social anthropology. The strange apparel alone offers much food for interpretation, a colour-coded guide to the hierarchical life of the university. You would need to paddle up the Orinoco to find a lost tribe worthy of similar study.
Into this midsummer dream have arrived an unlikely couple who have the air of those who wonder what on earth they are doing here. There is an internationally renowned orchestra conductor with his beautiful wife and two sons. His unruly locks and black suede shoes are evidence that he has come from elsewhere, perhaps even “the real world”. There is, too, a famous novelist, “Scottish by formation”, who is wearing a black polka-dot dress and sunglasses marked boldly “CD” – Christian Dior. She is the epitome of Isherwood’s camera with its shutter open, passively recording the remarkable tableau that is unfolding before her eyes.
Earlier, both of them had paraded solemnly through Oxford’s cobbled backstreets to a ceremony at which they would both receive honorary degrees. That was last year, but more – much more – of the same is promised this year. Time was when the award of an honorary degree was a comparative rarity, reflecting the climax of a career, given in recognition of a lifetime’s devotion to one’s obsession. As Alan Bennett said, “if you live to be 90 in England and can still eat a boiled egg, they think you deserve the Nobel prize”.
The survival of the fittest was rewarded with honours at every turn, from knighthoods and Orders of Merit to DLitts and fellowships. Increasingly, however, age and achievement seem irrelevant as the scores of contemporary universities attempt to confer honorary degrees on everyone from newscasters and actresses to newspaper pundits and pulp novelists.
What once might have been seen as the crowning glory to an illustrious if often unsung career is today becoming devalued and commonplace. Soon, if it is not the case already, there will be more kudos in making an appearance on Desert Island Discs or This Is Your Life than in receiving a doctorate from one of the country’s institutions of higher learning.
One obvious reason for this is the proliferation of universities, each desperate to attract to itself, be it ancient or modern, red-brick, plate-glass or plasterboard, names so famous that even tabloid readers may be familiar with them. With so many degree ceremonies in need of stars, the universities are falling over themselves to confer honorary degrees. Some, it has been suggested, are prepared even to swap a degree for a fat cheque. At the same time, the universities acknowledge that people who are invited to receive such an honour seem more inclined than ever to accept them. A spokesperson for one Scottish university told me that there is “a very high level of acceptance from degrees offered”.
Not surprisingly, this has led to accusations of dumbing down. At one time, honorary doctorates were conferred on philosophers and scientists, mathematicians and classical scholars. Occasionally, eminent politicians, philanthropic industrialists and religious leaders would be honoured. Now and then, novelists or poets or playwrights would be called to meet those who had made their living by criticising their work. More often than not, however, the names of people who were given degrees by universities meant nothing to the public at large. They toiled in unglamorous circumstances, in vocations where fame and fortune were unlikely and unsought.
No more, it seems. Now a Nobel chemist is quite likely to find that he is sharing his degree ceremony with a sitcom actress or, in the not-too-distant future, perhaps, a Spice Girl. There is, it seems, little distinction made in academia between the Nelson Mandelas of the world and those whom the United Nations asks to lend their names to good causes.
The universities say that there is a rigorous and democratic process that involves the gamut of the “professional community” in the selection of honorary graduates. They are looking, they say, for “individuals who have made an outstanding contribution in their fields”. Those “fields”, of course, are crucial. Should universities really be in the game of honouring those who can read an autocue, bash out a newspaper column, stuff a mushroom or – in the case of Michael Parkinson, who last year received an honorary degree from the University of Lincolnshire and Humberside – tease anecdotes from luvvies?
But despite growing criticism, universities show no sign of attempting to reverse the trend. Later this year, Edinburgh University alone is awarding more than 20 honorary degrees. The recipients include John Colquhoun, the former footballer and student rector of the university, and the broadcasters Sheena McDonald and Kirsty Wark.
In recent times, honorary degrees have been awarded to Dickie Bird, the former Test cricket umpire, who received a degree from Leeds University; Terry Pratchett, the author of the Discworld series of science-fiction novels, who received an honorary doctorate of letters from the University of Warwick; and Helen Mirren, the star of Prime Suspect, who was voted “TV’s sexiest woman”and who collected a doctorate of letters from the University of St Andrews. After the ceremony, Mirren said: “I’ve just realised I can call myself a doctor for the first time. It is a bit like winning an Oscar.”
Leaving aside that Mirren has never won an Oscar, it’s clear that honorary degrees are slowly but surely acquiring a similar status to Hollywood’s highest, if often dubious, accolades. Although the universities dress up their reasons in a cloak of academic respectability, they certainly appear to have showbiz very much on their minds. One university’s spokesperson said that it invited high-profile people to become honorary graduates “to heighten the experience of our graduating students”. It wants to “involve individuals in the university who might not otherwise engage with it”.
For many people, both inside and outside universities, there is an unspoken and unproven, but oft-suspected, subtext to the headlong desire to attract headline-grabbing personalities, wealthy businessmen and power-brokers to become honorary graduates: the hope that they might give money to the university or lobby on its behalf.
The idea that degrees could be for sale is not something that universities will admit in public. However, an investigation last year found that many universities were willing to exchange honorary degrees for much less money than it costs to study for them. There is also a correlation between those who have sponsored university events and given generously when universities held out a begging bowl and those who have received honorary degrees.
With more than 1,000 honorary degrees bestowed in Britain each year, it is likely that the current asking price – put anywhere between £10,000 and £100,000 – will drop dramatically, and with it the status of the awards.
Soon, no doubt, degrees, like redundant titles, will be advertised and purchased by the highest bidders. To have raised that spectre at Oxford a year ago to its two latest graduates would have been inappropriate. Not that either of them had any cause to make excuses, both being above reproach and clearly deserving of the honour they had been given.
Indeed, Oxford was just the latest in a long line of universities to have thus honoured them. Their success was richly deserved and sincerely appreciated. But, in future, will they and their ilk be so keen to associate their illustrious names with prizes whose glitter has been so badly tarnished?