Honour for the Chancellor outrages university staff

Clarke's cuts have left wounds, says Fran Abrams
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The Independent Online
WHEN staff at Nottingham Trent University heard of a proposal to award Kenneth Clarke an honorary degree "for services to education", they thought it was a joke. The Chancellor had, after all, just cut pounds 300m from the universities' funding in his November budget.

Two months on, the battle over Mr Clarke's degree has become deadly serious, reviving memories of how Oxford dons refused Margaret Thatcher an honorary degree in 1985.

Tomorrow, the university's board of governors meets to discuss the award, with the lecturers' union threatening legal action if it goes ahead.

The proposed degree is already toned down from what was first put to the university's academic board and, on an informal show of hands, rejected by 18 votes to two, in December. Mr Clarke was to get a doctorate of law, but the law department staff protested that they wanted nothing to do with the Chancellor. Since no other department was willing to nominate him, the new proposal is for a more general award - a doctorate of the university. The citation will also be more general - instead of services to education, the revised award will mark Mr Clarke's "personal contribution to public life" in Nottingham and Nottinghamshire, where he represents the Rushcliffe constituency.

The proposal will almost certainly be backed at tomorrow's meeting by Sir David White, chairman of the university's board of governors and a long-standing friend of the Chancellor. Like Mr Clarke, he is an old boy of the independent Nottingham High School and a fan of Nottingham Forest football club. Staff think Sir David is behind the proposal.

Sir David, nicknamed by local people "King Quango", is chairman of the Nottingham Health Authority, a trustee of the city's Djanogly City Technology College and a former chairman of Nottingham Development Enterprise, a public and private sector urban regeneration partnership.

A survey of academic staff carried out by the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education, Natfhe, revealed that 95 per cent were opposed to Mr Clarke's degree and the union called on the vice- chancellor, Professor Raymond Cowell, to resist it. As the governors meet tomorrow, staff will hold a protest meeting. They are also taking their complaints to the Nolan committee on standards in public life.

Neil Williamson, East Midlands regional secretary of Natfhe, said the university had breached its own regulations in even suggesting that a serving politician should receive an honorary degree. The union was taking advice on whether legal action against the university might be successful, he said.

"There is a deep irony in the idea of a university wanting to give such an award to the Chancellor of the Exchequer who has just cut pounds 300m out of the higher education budget. Even the vice-chancellors have described that as catastrophic."

Teachers' unions, whose relations with Mr Clarke between 1990 and 1992, when he was Education Secretary, were characterised by bitterness, were also scathing about the idea. Doug McAvoy, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said that Mr Clarke had damaged the education system in both his most recent roles. "Class sizes started to rise as soon as he became Education Secretary," Mr McAvoy said, "and now he is Chancellor he has made the position even worse. Perhaps he should get an honorary degree for his services to parsimony."

The university's only response to the dispute has been to state that the matter is confidential until a decision has been made, though in its internal bulletin, Grapevine, it said Mr Clarke was one of several "prominent personalities" whose names were put forward. Tomorrow's decision would be final, it said. Mr White declined to comment.

Lists of recent honorary graduates of Nottingham Trent (formerly Trent Polytechnic) reveal no other serving politician,though there have been hints that a senior Labour figure might be named this year to reduce the embarrassment

The number of honorary degrees being offered by the university has been rising steadily. In 1992 there were four. In 1993 there were eight, including Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean, the Nottingham ice dancers, and in 1995, 16.

Mr Clarke, however, is unlikely to be losing any sleep over the award. He already holds two degrees in law from Cambridge and an honorary degree in the same subject from the University of Nottingham, the city's prestigious "old" university.