Academia's honours system booms

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The Independent Online
WHEN Sir David Attenborough dons his academic gown and walks on to the stage to receive an honorary degree from Bradford University today, it will feel a familiar experience.

The naturalist and film-maker lists 19 other honorary university awards in his Who's Who entry, among his many other achievements.

That makes him the clear leader in the academic award stakes according to a survey carried out by The Independent of the 75 British universities. The list also includes names such as Dame Diana Rigg, Kate Adie, Lord Bragg, Gary Lineker, Linford Christie, the ice-skating duo Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean and the television actor and sometime pop star Robson Green.

They are all part of a growing trend in awarding an Hon PhD or DLitt to stars of stage, screen, sports - and business.

The reason is that the genteel world of the graduation ceremony has succumbed to the needs of publicity and finance. According to Professor Alan Smithers of Liverpool University, the number of honorary graduates has soared alongside the number of universities, students and graduates.

The professor said: "I would hope that judgements are dispassionate. Honorary graduates must be distinguished in their own field, hopefully will be well known and they must be able to make a sparkling speech. The risk is, in the desperation for coverage, the universities will go for sporting figures and pop stars and minor media people."

Honorary graduates from the business world include Sir Richard Sykes, chief executive of Glaxo Wellcome, who has 10 honorary degrees to his name, Sir Iain Vallance, chairman of BT, who has accepted seven, and Eddie George, governor of the Bank of England, who notched up six degrees.

Politicians loom large. Mo Mowlam has received three degrees this year alone - including two last month - for her work as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. Martin Bell, the independent MP for Tatton, has degrees from North London and Robert Gordon Universities, as well as from the University of East Anglia. President Nelson Mandela received eight degrees at once in 1996 during his visit to Britain.

Honorary graduates are put forward by lecturers and then chosen by panels of dons. For centuries they have honoured eminent academics, benefactors, the great and the good.

Professor Martin Harris, vice-chancellor of Manchester University, himself the holder of three honorary degrees, said: "We just look for people who have been distinguished, but have some link with the city. The aim is to mark distinction and to thank people for the contribution they have made to society over and above the norm. People very, very rarely turn them down."

Bradford is holding 14 degree ceremonies this year, and like all other universities is looking to add a little sparkle to the proceedings.

Its vice-chancellor, Professor Colin Bell, said: "When I graduated from Keele in the 1960s there was just one graduation ceremony for the university and only something like 31 universities. Now Bradford is one of 100 universities and we have something like 14 graduation ceremonies alone. That's a lot of graduates."

Yesterday, Bradford bestowed honorary degrees on the actor Bill Owen, who plays Compo in the BBC's Last of the Summer Wine television series, and James Dyson, inventor of the bagless vacuum cleaner and a multiple holder of such titles.

Professor Bell said the university wanted to honour distinguished people with a link to the university or to the surrounding area. But, he said: "We all have public relations departments measuring their success in column inches and photo-opportunities. There is a real reason for the publicity. The most important people are the people graduating and if they see Diana Rigg or another honorary graduate in the papers after the ceremony the mums and dads and the graduates themselves love it."

Universities are cagey about links between their honours and grants or gifts from industry. But one prominent academic said: "Vice-chancellors look down the list and say, `Is that a please or a thank you?' "

The honours, however, do not overly impress Who's Who. "Some people do not bother to even list them. It is up to the individuals whether they choose to include them in their entry or not," said a spokes-man. "You can assess how important they are to the individual by whether they include them. But you certainly don't need one to be in Who's Who. It's not something we take much notice of."

Sir David Attenborough's Main Rivals

Lord Jenkins


17 degrees

Sir Richard Sykes


10 degrees

Lord Mackay

former Lord Chancellor 10 degrees

Sir Kenneth Calman

civil servant

9 degrees

Betty Boothroyd

Speaker of Commons

8 degrees

Sir Iain Vallance


7 degrees

Sir Ron Dearing

civil servant

7 degrees

Eddie George


6 degrees

Lord Bragg

broadcaster and writer

6 degrees

Mary Robinson

former Irish President

5 degrees