Even so, it may be argued that they are an anachronism. But, as graduating students appreciate, they have another function: they enliven the proceedings of a graduation ceremony at which each attending graduand has otherwise to sit through several hundred other awards of degrees. Honorary Grads are invited to speak, and (hopefully) to entertain. They are therefore elected only after considered selection...
Fiona Shaw is best known for her theatre work - having won three Best Actress Olivier awards, an Evening Standard Award and a London Critics' Award. On Saturday, she adds the honorary degree of DUniv (Doctor of the University) for her services to theatre and education.
Born and educated in Cork, she received a BA Honours degree in philosophy in 1979. She studied acting at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, joined the Royal Shakespeare Company, and has lived and worked mainly in England since.
Throughout her career she has pushed the boundaries of theatre. Her performance in the title role of Shakespeare's Richard II for the National Theatre in London, for example, demanded that the audience look afresh at the action of the play.
For several years she has worked as Artistic Associate with the OU/BBC Shakespeare Multimedia Research Project, where she has approached the teaching of drama through new technology with enthusiasm and commitment.
She has appeared in such films as My Left Foot, Jane Eyre and The Avengers. Television appearances include: Fireworks for Elspeth, Sherlock Holmes and Hedda Gabler.
As David Sheppard, Lord Sheppard of Liverpool was a world-class cricketer who became one of Britain's best-loved bishops. On Saturday he will be awarded a DUniv degree for his contribution to the cultural well-being of society, particularly for his efforts to tackle problems of social exclusion and injustice.
Sheppard played for Sussex when he was just 18 and was awarded a county cap the same season. He read history at Trinity Hall Cambridge and captained the University cricket team, before returning to Sussex and gaining 22 England caps.
However, he declined the England captaincy in favour of ordination. His entire ordained ministry - from 1955 until his retirement in 1997 - was spent in urban areas. When he began his 12 years as Warden of the Mayflower Family Centre in Canning Town he worked unobtrusively, but found himself in the limelight when he refused to participate in the tour by the South African cricket team in 1960.
From then, he increasingly spoke on issues of social injustice. In 1969, aged 40, he was appointed Bishop of Woolwich. He became Chairman of the Evangelical Urban Training Project, the Martin Luther King Foundation, and the Urban Ministry Project.
In 1975 he was appointed Bishop of Liverpool. His mission to reduce social exclusion has led in various ways to his promoting second chance learning. He feels that there is much God-given intelligence to be liberated, which has lain dormant or been discouraged in early years. He was made a Life Peer as Lord Sheppard of Liverpool in 1998. David Sheppard's books have included Parson's Pitch, Built as a City, Bias to the Poor and, jointly with the late Archbishop Derek Worlock, Better Together and With Hope in our Hearts.
Computer expert Hugh Darwen will be awarded an MUniv for academic and scholarly distinction. He has an international reputation as a specialist in database technology, in particular the theory and practice of relational databases.
He has been an Open University tutor for ten years and is the industrial assessor for the OU's masters level database course. Some 2,500 undergraduate students are taking a Level 3 database course that has been influenced by his contributions.
Hugh Darwen began a medical education before joining IBM as a computer programmer in 1967, working from 1969 to 1982 in an international centre developing an information system for business people. He found that there are certain principles, based on mathematical theory, which can be used to construct relational databases.
He has represented the UK on the development of international standards for SQL, one of the most widely-used languages used in the development of relational databases. He still works for IBM and is a visiting lecturer at six British universities. He has co-authored several books with C J Date, a leading computer author, culminating in their controversial Foundation for Object/Relational Databases: The Third Manifesto (1998).
Alistair Graham made his name as a leading moderniser in industrial relations, but now faces the toughest challenge of his career - as chairman of the Parades Commission in Northern Ireland. He will be awarded a DUniv.
Born in Hexham, Alistair Graham explored the legal profession and hospital administration before his transfer to the Royal Sussex County Hospital in Brighton led to a strong involvement in trade union work, through NALGO, and political work, standing for parliament in 1966.
In the 1980s, as General Secretary of the largest civil service union, the CPSA, he soon became associated with the "new realism" - encouraging unions to come to terms with a changing environment both in the labour market and with new legislation governing union activities.
In 1986 he became Director of the Industrial Society, working to strengthen links between management and the workforce through improved communications and management.
Between 1988 and 1997 he was a member of the Open University Council, including six years as Chairman of the Staff Policy Committee.
A return to his northern roots came with his appointment as chief executive of the training and enterprise council at Calderdale and Kirklees. He was there for five years before taking up his current post as Chief Executive of Leeds TEC.
He now combines this local role with an additional national one: as Chairman of the Parades Commission in Northern Ireland. He has visited the province 100 times in two years, regulating contentious parades such as the annual Drumcree Parade in Portadown.
A lover of music and theatre, Alistair Graham is also a Director of Opera North.
Planning the education system and mapping the humane genome
John Tomlinson has been widely regarded as one of the principal architects of the education system in England and Wales for more than three decades. He becomes DUniv for his work in areas of special educational concern to the Open University.
John Tomlinson's career has been in educational administration and teacher education. He first worked in Shropshire, then Lancashire, before becoming Chief Education Officer for Cheshire in 1972 - a role in which he won respect for inspired leadership and professionalism.
He was Director of the Institute of Education at Warwick University. He has chaired the Further Education Unit; the Schools Council; the Arts in Schools Curriculum Project and the campaign for a general teaching council.
As chair of the Further Education Funding Council's enquiry into the education of adults with learning difficulties (1993-1996), he was charged with introducing fundamental reform into the FE system; the committee became known as the Tomlinson Committee.
In 1997, colleagues from many parts of the education service presented him with a Festschrift entitled Living Education to mark a lifetime's commitment to education.
Tomlinson is currently Chair of the Gulbenkian Foundation enquiry into the curriculum of personal and social education in schools, and Academic Secretary of the Universities' Council for the Education of Teachers.
Kay Davies, a leading specialist in genetics, receives the award of DUniv for academic and scholarly distinction. She is Dr Lee's Professor of Anatomy at Oxford University, and has been closely associated with the human genome project from the outset.
From 1992 to 1994 she was Vice President of the International Human Genome Organisation (HUGO).
During this period she also chaired the expert working group set up by the Office of Science and Technology (UK) to identify priorities and opportunities in genome research.
Professor Davies has an active interest in the ethical implications of biotechnology and the promotion of the public understanding of science. She is currently a member of the UK Government Advisory Committee on Genetic Testing (ACGT) and chair of the Advisory Committee on Genetic Modification (ACGM).
Her research interests lie in the molecular analysis of human genetic disease. Her research programmes concern diagnosis, molecular basis of genetic disease and gene therapy.
Professor Davies's pioneering work in this field has led to the unravelling of the flawed genes which cause a number of major inherited illnesses, including Fragile X syndrome - a disorder that results in mental retardation in males - and muscular dystrophy, the progressive degenerative muscle disease.
Russell Stannard joined the OU in 1969. Formerly Pro-Vice-Chancellor, he retired in 1997. He was Vice-President of the Institute of Physics from 1987 to 1991, and is a member of the Center for Theological Inquiry at Princeton. In 1986, he received the Templeton UK Project Award for his contributions to science and religion, and in 1998 an OBE.
Stuart Hall, one of the founding fathers of modern social sciences, won a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford and became a central figure in establishing a field of study that flourished internationally. He joined the OU in 1979 as Professor of Sociology and his work has explored how the dynamics of racism and ethnicity have shaped the development of English and British politics and culture. He has been a formative influence on students and colleagues across the world.
David Murray has been Professor of Government since 1969. He was a member of the general management committee in the initial years, chairman of the Examinations and Assessment Committee during a formative period and Pro-Vice-Chancellor.
He has chaired courses including Decision Making in Britain, and contributed to many others. He has published extensively on public administration and government.