Is there much point in an honorary degree?

Published

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Shaun Turtle
Writer

Both Alex Salmond and Gordon Brown are due to give public lectures at the University of Glasgow and receive honorary degrees for their achievements during their long political careers, particularly, their attempts to engage the Scottish population during the referendum campaign last year. However, with neither of them having an academic connection to the University, it raises the question of whether or not honorary degrees are just a means of garnering publicity, rather than meaningful recognition for a lifelong contribution to academia or public life. It begs the question, should honorary degrees be given to people with no affiliation to the University?

The entire concept of an honorary degree I find odd at best. I understand the importance of recognising innovators within various industries and professions; however, they should not devalue degrees. We all study and work hard for years to gain our degree, with countless hours spent constantly staring at books hoping that we retain the important information needed to pass our exams.

It is, therefore, intensely frustrating for students when universities hand out honorary degrees to people who have no connection with the University or no intellectual substance that merits a degree. An honorary degree is likely , ultimately, to sit in the depths of say Alex Salmond or Gordon Brown’s attic where it has no use, acting more as an arbitrary gold star awarded to a primary school pupil than an actual academic achievement.

It is worth noting that many professionals, including politicians, have their own ways of recognising achievement, whether it is by the State or an independent body like the Nobel Committee. Of course, I’m not trying to diminish the achievements of the recipients of honorary degrees, such as Salmond and Brown. I am merely pointing out that to label the award a ‘degree’ is unfair to students who work very hard for their degrees. There must be many alumni of the University of Glasgow who have gone on to do groundbreaking work in their own professional fields; they are the people the University really should be championing. Their achievements deserve to be recognised every bit as much as a former Prime Minister or a former First Minister.

Is it really fair for people who have no prior connection with the University to be presented with this award? In particular, Brown and Salmond, who attended Edinburgh and St Andrews respectively. Furthermore, both men are no strangers to the limelight, having had distinguished political careers that have lasted decades.

Also, when considering the current climate in the news, with the general election just over the horizon, it seems strikingly convenient that Brown and Salmond should receive these awards at such a time. You would be forgiven for thinking that there might be some connection between the two. Surely, the timing belittles any integrity, as it appears to be an attempt, on the part of the University, to attract publicity.

This isn’t the first time that honorary degrees have been brought into question. In 2010, Nick Seaton, Chair of the Campaign for Real Education, wrote a passionate article which brought into question the purpose, and legitimacy, of honorary degrees. It is no surprise that educational professionals such as Seaton take an anti-honorary degree view, when many recipients of these awards are celebrities. One such example is Kim Cattrall, actress in Sex and the City, who received an honorary degree from Liverpool’s John Moores University. As thrilled as one might be for Kim, the fact that honorary degrees are handed out to celebrities is baffling. It leads us to ask who benefits from honorary degrees and what they really stand for, as degrees should be the product of hours spent studying and years of academic commitment, not appearing in a TV series or a movie.

Universities often stress that they try to maintain a close relationship with their awardees. It seems that most people who receive honorary degrees, however, don’t keep in contact with their honorary university. A recipient of an honorary degree from Southampton Solent University, Fiona Bruce stated that she was never asked to be involved at the university after receiving her award. This system makes honorary degrees seem like little more than publicity stunts, allowing a university to claim that it has close connections with famous people, as opposed to recognising genuine academic achievements.

Examples such as these, among many, show that honorary degrees have no real purpose, as they are more of a tool of a university’s press team rather than a meaningful reward for academic accomplishment. There is a worrying trend that people, including celebrities, are presented with honorary degrees with no academic substance or, in the case of Brown and Salmond, who have no link with the University. This, ultimately, belittles the work of students and fails to highlight the work of alumni, many of whom are unsung heroes and who have not been publicly distinguished in the way that Brown and Salmond have been.