Not all agree with honorary degrees. Some argue that it insults the graduates who have earned their degrees to make a fuss of people who haven't. My own observation, as a veteran of more than a hundred degree ceremonies, is that the vast majority of graduates don't see it that way. They seem pleased to share their own moment of public recognition with others, be they famous figures or ordinary people, who have made a particularly distinguished contribution to their chosen calling. Indeed, when we do not make an honorary award at an OU ceremony, both the graduates and staff express disappointment.
For honorary degrees to be meaningful the process for choosing the recipients must have integrity. That means involving the whole university community, through the Senate, in proposing and selecting names. This acts as a natural filter for "chequebook awards" or other nominations that might expose the University to accusations of ulterior motivation. In that spirit sensible universities have a self-denying ordinance on awards to active politicians and wait until they have retired from office. The OU's list of honorary alumni includes a number of retired political leaders. Such people receive many honours but I am always struck by the pleasure that the OU award gives them.
Honorary degrees can also recognise, through the individual recipient, the office they hold or the institution that they represent. I myself have been offered honorary doctorates by fourteen universities in nine countries and I know that these awards are also a symbol of esteem for the Open University. My most recent award, an honorary doctorate in education from Sukhothai Thammathirat Open University (STOU) in Thailand, was a good example. Thailand's open university drew deeply on the expertise of UKOU people and a steady traffic of visits in both directions continues today. STOU has been extraordinarily successful. With some 400,000 students in award-bearing programmes at degree and non-degree level it is now larger than the UKOU and makes a notable contribution to the academic life of Thailand.
STOU is impressively well organised. I have always been proud of the combination of dignity, efficiency and friendliness that the UKOU achieves in its degree ceremonies but we ourselves could learn from the event that I attended in Bangkok. It is a tradition in Thailand for university graduates to receive their degrees from a member of the royal family and Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn performs this function for STOU. The setting was Amporn Garden, next to one of the royal palaces in downtown Bangkok, and in six ceremonies over three days he handed degree certificates individually to 12,000 graduates. Their pride, both in their awards and in the manner in which they were conferred, was palpable. For those three days, at all the major parks and monuments in central Bangkok, you could see gowned STOU graduates being photographed with large family groups. In the UK we convene degree ceremonies all over the country but STOU holds them all in Bangkok. Thousands had converged from all over Thailand for these events.
It was a great honour to be part of the proceedings. This was the first honorary degree ever made by Sukhothai Thammathirat Open University to someone from outside Thailand. By awarding it to the Vice-Chancellor of the UK Open University STOU was acknowledging the impact of a British innovation on higher education in Thailand. That influence goes beyond the instrumental function of inculcating skills and knowledge. STOU has given itself a special mission to promote democratic values. In this spirit it has recently opened a memorial library to King Rama VII. Educated in the UK, he abdicated in the 1930s rather than let an authoritarian government highjack Thailand's embryonic democracy. Today, the Thai people view the King as the defender of their liberties and by personally awarding all Thai university degrees the royal family expresses the importance of higher education in the advancement of democratic values.