Honorary degrees of separation

Comedians, referees, pop stars: they all qualify for academic honours from British universities. Hardly a ringing endorsement of the institutions doling them out, argues Matthew Sweet
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July in the universities. Undergraduates have gone off to work double shifts in the KFCs of their home towns. Dons are resolving to use the long vacation to finish the book they began writing in 1987. Branches of Marks & Spencer from Cambridge to Keele are stocking up on cheap Italian fizz. It's degree ceremony season: a time for robing, processing, doffing, shuffling, intoning tortuous Latin phrases from cue cards hidden inside ceremonial hats, and - most important - welcoming the celebs on campus.

July in the universities. Undergraduates have gone off to work double shifts in the KFCs of their home towns. Dons are resolving to use the long vacation to finish the book they began writing in 1987. Branches of Marks & Spencer from Cambridge to Keele are stocking up on cheap Italian fizz. It's degree ceremony season: a time for robing, processing, doffing, shuffling, intoning tortuous Latin phrases from cue cards hidden inside ceremonial hats, and - most important - welcoming the celebs on campus.

So here they come, all done up in vegetarian ermine and Bash Street mortarboards. A woman who used to loiter outside Buckingham Palace in fiercely unsuitable skirts; a desiccated Sixties icon; a slurring knighted pensioner who soft-soaps politicians on a Sunday morning TV sofa; the surviving members of a cabal of falsetto singer-songwriters formerly known as Les Tosseurs. Or, as we must now refer to them, Dr Jennie Bond, Dr Bob Dylan, Sir David Frost PhD, and Drs Barry and Robin Gibb.

The list might sound like that parlour game in which a gaggle of famous figures are trapped in a plummeting hot-air balloon, and you have to decide who should be hurled from the basket - but these are the cream of this year's crop of honorary doctors. Plump fruits freshly plucked from the groves of Academe. The class of 2004.

Blame the University of Warwick for pressing an Hon DLitt into the manicured tendrils of Jennie Bond, former golden coach-chaser and alumnus of I'm a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here!. (The institution's press release gave her top billing over the renowned novelist and Peruvian presidential candidate Mario Vargas Llosa - but then, he's never shared a supper of mealy bugs with Peter Andre.) The University of East Anglia can take responsibility for garlanding the man Peter Cook famously regretted saving from a watery grave. (A brave choice: can you imagine what the acronym UEA sounds like lurching from the mouth of Sir David Frost?) And it was the University of Manchester which decided that The Bee Gees deserved to be invested as honorary Doctors of Music. (Surrounded by balding, bearded men, they must have felt quite at home.)

Dylan's investiture at St Andrews, however, yielded the grandest swathe of media coverage. The taciturn legend arrived 50 minutes into the 90-minute ceremony and stood there sucking in his cheeks, his impassivity broken only by the occasional yawn. He retained this waxworklike attitude as Professor Neil Corcoran described him as "an extension of our consciousness", Sir Kenneth Dover bopped him on the head with a 17th-century birretum, and the St Salvator's Chapel Choir performed their whoop-de-doo a cappella version of "Blowin' in the Wind". The last time Dylan accepted such an honour was from Princeton in 1970. The experience can't have been significantly peachy - not if his song "Day of the Locusts" is an accurate account of events: "I put down my robe, picked up my diploma,/ Took hold of my sweetheart and away we did drive,/ Straight for the hills, the black hills of Dakota,/ Sure was glad to get out of there alive."

David Hockney is so fed up with having doctorates foisted on him that he's decided not to accept any more - particularly, he's observed, as they don't even allow you to write prescriptions for your own drugs. Johnny Ball, Andrew Marr, John Peel, George Best, George Melly, Seve Ballesteros, Ewan McGregor and Lennox Lewis have no such qualms. (Nor does King Bhumipol of Thailand, who has so far graciously received 136 honorary degrees.)

Germaine Greer seems to have been slipped an honorary degree by University of Essex because she raises lettuces down the road on the B184. "I love Essex with all my heart!" she told her fellow graduates in July last year, demonstrating her local knowledge with a gag about the proverbially tacky dress-sense of Essex girls. "There I was looking to see how many ankle chains came up, and everybody was wearing such long trousers I couldn't see!"

So you might be forgiven for thinking - particularly if you did several years' hard slog in the lab or the library to earn the privilege of putting those two little letters, D and R, on your Visa card - that the whole honorary degree system was a bit of a joke. A chance for dons to schmooze somebody off the telly, make a slightly embarrassing speech and get their photos in the papers. An opportunity for the famous to feed at the trough of their own vanity, wipe academic saliva from their lapels and collect another novelty to clutter up the lavatory.

Absolutely not, say the institutions doling out the scrolls. "The honorary degrees of which I've been aware at this university have always had a sound justification," contends Dr David Sewell, Dean of Science at the University of Hull - which recently made doctors of Sir Steve Redgrave, Maureen Lipman and Timothy West. "They always go through a fairly rigorous process to determine their appropriateness. Those that emerge are not in any way frivolous. They are genuinely thought through, and are there to reflect what is valued in an organisation like ours. We value excellence. We value achievement. And that covers a huge range of activities."

Last Wednesday, Dr Sewell had the privilege of lavishing an oration upon Hull's latest honorary graduate - Pierluigi Collina, the celebrated Italian football referee with the staring goggle eyes. Collina was presented with a silver whistle engraved with the crest of his new Alma Mater. "Hull seems like a nice place," he said carefully, helping to dispel the ignominy borne by the city since it achieved top place in the bestselling toilet book Crap Towns.

Dr Sewell praised the ref for his "moral courage". "On one notable occasion," he declared, "that moral courage led him to reverse a key decision in a high-profile game; to explain his reasons to the captains and managers involved and to be proved to have been correct in his actions." This, says the Dean, is a life skill that his university tries to inculcate in students. And when Kevin Keegan was the manager of Newcastle United, he points out, applications to Newcastle University rocketed.

"The honorary degree system illustrates to our community and the national and international community that universities are changing," he argues. "They're touching more aspects of life. They're not ivory towers. There was a time when many people were horrified by The Beatles being offered OBEs. Now people from all walks of life receive honours, and that reflects the society in which we live. I think it's entirely appropriate that as well as those who've made a major contribution to knowledge in science and art and literature, others receive honorary degrees for having made major contributions in other areas."

The playwright Alan Plater has three honorary degrees. His first, also from Hull, was, he suspects, a thank-you for the unofficial work he did for the university when he was resident in the city in the Seventies. Students on the drama course - including a teenage Anthony Minghella - were dispatched to him for advice on how to bulk up their dramaturgical muscles. But the award might also have been given in recognition of his decision to deposit his archive at the University Library, in a deal brokered by the poet Philip Larkin. Plater recalls: "I said to him, 'There's shelf upon shelf of this stuff. Do you really want the scripts of 15 episodes of Oh No, It's Selwyn Froggitt?'" Apparently, he did.

Plater's other awards came from less obvious institutions. Northumbria University pushed one his way because it "wanted to honour a local boy who'd done all right". (Plater is, however, an alumnus of its main rival in the city.) In 2003, the Open University wrote to ask if he'd accept an honorary doctorate for services to the arts. "I've never done anything for the OU except support them when they were on University Challenge," he admits. "But I don't think they would have known that." For Plater, the system of awarding honorary degrees functions as a more respectable version of the New Year and Birthday honours rounds. "It's something to say that you haven't totally wasted your time. And it's nice to be reassured that somebody's taken notice."

And the roster of names an institution has noticed can be revealing as a chart of a university's aspirations and insecurities. Some universities employ the system to reclaim rebels for whom school was once too cool. Last year, Barry Humphries was made an honorary Doctor of Laws by Melbourne university, at which he studied for about three seconds in the Fifties. "It's appropriate," he said, "because most of the money I have made has found its way into the pockets of the legal profession."

Other institutions hand out doctorates as political statements. In 1985, the proposal within Oxford to make Margaret Thatcher an honorary Doctor of Civil Law foundered when it was opposed by 738 to 319 votes. "You don't stop someone becoming a fellow of an academic body because you dislike them," protested Daphne Park, the principal of Somerville College, alluding to the enduring fact that most academics expect to hate each other's guts. The students who collected 5,000 signatures of protest cheered when they heard the news that the only honour Mrs T would hold from Oxford was the 2:2 she scraped while studying the chemistry of ice-cream there in 1947.

Pieter-Dirk Uys, a cross-dressing satirist who is South Africa's answer to Humphries, was honoured last year by the University of Cape Town for his "socially responsible creative work" - slipping on his best frock and telling the government of Thabo Mbeki where it can stick its policies on Aids. And the University of Bradford may have been attempting a similar gesture last Thursday, when Clare Short, the former Secretary for International Development, received a scroll from its vice-chancellor, Chris Taylor. "It is an honour for the university to have the opportunity to recognise the achievements of such a distinguished and talented person," he oozed, blowing his chances of receiving a knighthood from Tony Blair.

But the question nobody seems to ask is this: if figures from outside academia are eligible for honorary degrees, why are academics not eligible for honorary versions of the gongs awarded for achievements beyond the campus? Why shouldn't Dr David Sewell be named honorary man of the match at the next cup final? Why shouldn't the literary critic Terry Eagleton be considered as an honorary British Soap Awards Sexiest Male? Why can't Richard Dawkins be an honorary Rear of the Year? Why don't they give an honorary Smash Hits! award to the noted Shostakovich scholar Professor David Fanning, occupant of the music chair at the University of Manchester - and make him dance with Mel B at the poll winners' party? If the traffic of awards flowed in both directions, fewer commentators would accuse universities of making desperate attempts to bask in the reflected glory of minor celebrities.

In the meantime, those who grind their teeth at the lists of dubious honorary doctors may console themselves with this story. There is, it seems, one celebrity who is not being considered for a moment under the mortarboard - Darius Danesh. The Pop Idol loser who wouldn't take no for an answer. Him with the shirts. Last October, Darius bragged that he was about to receive an honour from the University of Edinburgh. "They sent me this honorary degree, which has taken pride of place on my mum and dad's mantelpiece," he told Top of the Pops magazine. "I feel like I robbed the bank and got away with it."

Unfortunately, this was the first Edinburgh had heard of it. The missive on the Danesh family mantelpiece turned out to be the form letter that gets sent to any student who flunks before the third year. Consequently, it was worthless. Just another piece of paper. Rather like Jennie Bond's doctorate from Warwick.