Spin-doctors for BT and the universities protest that there is no direct connection between the company's generous sponsorship and his regular appearances in mortar-board and gown. But a growing number of honorary degrees - the academic world's equivalent of an MBE - are being given to representatives of businesses and institutions that have financial links with the universities.
Many are also going to academics and politicians in countries where universities are keen to recruit new students - whose fees can be up to four times those paid by the British.
One of Dr Rudge's days out of the office last year was at Loughborough University, where he was made an honorary doctor of science. Loughborough is part of a BT "network of excellence", six universities developing the "SuperJanet" link for education institutions on the Internet. The six are sharing pounds 1.5m of BT's money over a five-year period. One of those honoured along with Dr Rudge was David Sainsbury, chairman of J Sainsbury plc, which sponsors courses in retail management at Loughborough.
Another was the secretary general to the Malaysian Ministry of Primary Industries, Tan Sri Datto' Othman Yeop Abdulla. Loughborough has 88 Malaysian students, and is keen to recruit more. It is also working with British companies and the Malaysian government to improve that country's higher education and employment training structures. "We have to go outside somewhere to get money which we used to get from the government," said Arthur Gardener, a spokesman for Loughborough.
Procedures for deciding who should get honorary degrees vary, but usually involve a committee sifting through nominations received by people connected with the university. Candidates will include faithful servants, former graduates made good, and celebrities, who guarantee publicity. Last year the deaf percussionist Evelyn Glennie was honoured four times, while there were three degrees each for Rabbi Julia Neuberger and the retiring Chief Inspector of Prisons, Judge Stephen Tumim. Sir David Attenborough has 18.
At Loughborough, a university with an emphasis on engineering, honorary degrees are often given to people from companies with whom the university had built up a relationship over the years, said Mr Gardener. In 1995, that included an honorary doctorate in technology for Richard Parry-Jones, vice-president of Ford Automotive Operations. "Ford has been supporting this university for 10 years, in various ways, and that man has become personally involved. The person you give [a degree] to has got to have something unusual about them: we gave him one because he was a very good engineer. That didn't seem strange to us."
An Independent on Sunday survey of the honorary degrees awarded by 62 of Britain's 96 universities in 1995 indicates that at least 50 went to representatives of companies or institutions who sponsor research. Another 25 were awarded to citizens of countries whose students are sought by British universities.
To the Association of University Teachers, those figures are a sad reflection of the pressure on universities to consider the financial ramifications of everything they do. "This is something that used to be an honour reserved for the great and the good, for singular achievement," said the AUT's spokesperson Monica Hicks. "If universities have been reduced to using them as caches of gratitude, it is a symptom and a sign of their desperation to curry favour with anyone who might keep them afloat."
She was not surprised by the trend. "This has been brewing up over a period of time, and it is a pattern that will be reinforced after the next budget, when universities will be savaged with regards to their funding."
Seven honorary degrees were awarded to people from the pharmaceuticals giant Glaxo Wellcome and associated charities. Glaxo Wellcome spends pounds 2m funding PhD students and pounds 9m a year on research grants. Its chief executive, Sir Richard Sykes, received three degrees last year. One of them came from Birmingham, one of three British universities involved in a joint project to fight tuberculosis. As well as sharing a purse of pounds 2m a year for five years, the three are guaranteed access to Glaxo's own research equipment and staff.
Dr Bridget Ogilvie, director of the Wellcome Trust, which exists to offer financial encouragement to biomedical science and the history of medicine, was awarded two degrees in 1995. One of them was from Bristol University, which has received a grant from the Trust. But Dr Malcolm Skingle, academic liaison manager in Glaxo Wellcome's department of global external scientific affairs, saw "no direct link at all" between honorary degrees and help with research. "If they're not good scientists, it doesn't get funded."
Don Carleton of Bristol University agreed there "might be an apparent tendency to reward those who have been giving us money", but that was not what was actually happening. "We tend to give honorary degrees to people that we know," he said. That could include the heads of charities and businesses who had given money. "When a chair is funded, we insist that there is no quid pro quo."
Like most other universities, Bristol has a rigorous system of selection for the awards, and prefers recipients to have a link with itself or the surrounding area. The scientific adviser to the prime minister of Malaysia received an honorary degree in 1993, and Bristol has 183 Malaysian students, but Mr Carleton thought the honorand was a former Bristol graduate. "We've had Malaysians here for 50 years or more."
Similar claims cannot be made by the newer universities. Middlesex University, formerly a polytechnic, awarded a degree to an overseas honorand for the first time last year: the recipient was Teo Chiang Quan, chief executive of the company which owned the Kolej Damansara Utama (KDU) in Malaysia. This is one of Middlesex's "college partners" overseas, and has sent more than 300 students.
Joel Gladstone, head of international marketing at Middlesex, said the standard fee charged for taking an overseas student from outside the European Union was pounds 6,000 per year, compared to fees of pounds 1,300 for a British arts student and pounds 2,700 for a domestic engineering undergraduate. More Malaysians chose to study in Britain than in any other country outside their own, he said, and the 300 currently at Middlesex were the university's biggest overseas contingent.
Middlesex is so keen on recruiting students from Malaysia and the Far East that it has set up an office in Kuala Lumpur. "With the way funding is going, it doesn't hurt to extend your markets," said a spokeswoman.
Dundee University honoured Dr Dhatuk Kamal Salih, a member of the Malaysian parliament who founded a medical college in Kuala Lumpur. Dundee is one of the college's overseas partners, and takes students for the second half of their training. An honorary degree also went to Dr Peter Doyle, a director of Zeneca, one of 15 major drug companies who have sponsored research into drug metabolism at Dundee, at a cost of pounds 2m over five years.
De Montfort University awarded a doctorate in art to Professor D Chew Teng Beng, an associate professor at the Penang Arts Centre in Malaysia. De Montfort has 364 Malaysian students, its biggest foreign group. "It's not a standard thing," said a spokeswoman. "We don't just pull people out of the affiliated institutions and honour what they've done."Reuse content