Doctor who? The celebrities who became instant academics

November 22, 2015, 1:58pm

Ed Sheeran returned to his home county to receive an honorary doctorate from University Campus Suffolk. Photo: PA/Chris Radburn

By Lauren Potts, BBC News

Singer Ed Sheeran is just one of the latest in a long line of celebrities to pick up an honorary degree for "outstanding contributions" in their field. But should the rich and famous be handed academic plaudits on a silver platter?

What do Dannii Minogue, Sir Alex Ferguson and Sir David Attenborough all have in common? Answer: They can all legitimately put the word "doctor" in front of their names.

Though Sir David's expertise as a naturalist is indisputable, the fact remains he has not, in the strictest sense of the word, earned his 32 honorary doctorates - at least not in the traditional academic way.

So what exactly are these awards and why are they given out?

Almost 1,000 honorary degrees were given out by universities across England in 2014 An honorary degree is a doctorate for which a university has waived the usual requirements - namely study - and is conferred in recognition of achievement.

The first was awarded to Lionel Woodville in the late 1470s by the University of Oxford in what appears to have been an attempt to obtain the favour of a man with great influence.

Since then, countless degrees have been dished out by England's higher education establishments. In 2014 alone, 117 universities across the country awarded 957 honorary degrees or fellowships to those, famous or otherwise, who have impressed in their professions.

But while many of those people received their awards for contributions to fields such as science or medicine, they were joined by household names like Gok Wan and Ryan Giggs, who also donned their caps and gowns but in the name of fashion and football.

So is there a fine line between who is deserving and who is not? You would be hard pressed to argue with those whose honorary degrees were awarded for tangible achievements not purely to do with their fame.

Jo Brand, for example, was awarded an honorary doctorate by Canterbury Christ Church University last year not simply because she is famous, but for raising awareness of mental health issues, having spent 10 years as a psychiatric nurse before becoming a comedian.

Fundraiser Stephen Sutton was posthumously made a Doctor of Science by Coventry University for raising awareness of teenage cancer, while Baroness Doreen Lawrence - mother of murdered teenager Stephen Lawrence - has five honorary degrees for her work as a rights campaigner.

So does the issue only arise when the degrees are given to notable people who have simply been doing their job?

Chris McGovern, chairman of the Campaign for Real Education (CRE), said: "I think when you award honorary degrees to football managers and pop stars, they're being rewarded with what I feel is a bogus notion of achievement.

"It's an insult to the students that work very hard. There are lots of people who are more deserving of degrees than Alex Ferguson. It's not that he's not a great football manager, but he's not a nurse helping refugees."

Some believe the matter is further inflamed by those who adopt the honorific their degree affords them.

Poet John Cooper Clarke and radio DJ Terry Wogan both regularly use their "Dr" title and there is nothing to stop them doing so, except that universities prefer recipients to refrain from adopting a potentially misleading title.

There is an argument to be had about whether it might not always be considered inappropriate to use the title. The Smiths' guitarist Johnny Marr lectures at Salford University and did so long before a doctorate of the arts was bestowed upon him.

But it is the exception rather than the rule.

"Terry Wogan uses his degree. He calls himself Dr Wogan and he's entitled to, it's a real thing in terms of status," said Mr McGovern.

"But why are we giving these academic qualifications to people that haven't actually studied and done the course?"

Though some relish the kudos that comes with an honorary doctorate, it doesn't sit comfortably with all famous graduates.

In 2006, The Eurythmics' singer Annie Lennox said she was "delighted" to receive her qualification from the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, but "felt like a complete fraud" for doing so.

Actress Emma Thompson reportedly felt the same about her degree from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland after she was asked how many essays she had written to obtain it.

Publicists for the stars and other honorary degree recipients, including Johnny Marr and the comedian Johnny Vegas, declined the opportunity to talk about their awards when contacted by the BBC. Several universities also declined to comment when asked what the benefit was to them in giving out degrees to celebrities.

Dannii Minogue received her degree for services to the entertainment industry Those who did gave reasons ranging from hoping celebrities would inspire students to acknowledging their contribution to the region or university.

The University of East London, which made doctors of Dizzee Rascal and Barbara Windsor, said many recipients return to the university to give lectures and become role models to students. "We take the conferring of honorary degrees extremely seriously," said vice-chancellor, Dusty Amroliwala.

"We look for figures whose careers will inspire our students. People who enjoy celebrity status have usually worked incredibly hard to achieve their success and that is a good message for our graduating students to hear."

Salford and Sheffield Hallam Universities, whose previous recipients include former footballer Gary Neville and actor Dominic West, said it conferred honorary degrees on those who had made "significant contributions" to the university, region, or more generally, to their field.

But with very few sticking up for celebrity degrees, it begs the question, does anyone think they are a good idea? The CRE does not think so and is calling for an end to them.

Famous honorary doctors

Julian Clary Comedian, Doctor of Laws Peter Hooton The Farm vocalist, Doctor of Philosophy Chris Tarrant Broadcaster, Doctor of Letters Heston Blumenthal Chef, Doctor of Science Liam Fray Courteeners frontman, Doctor of Arts

"I think these degrees are tainted and it's the universities I blame - they want to sprinkle some stardust on graduation day," said Mr McGovern.

"We have an honours system that works perfectly well, so I have to ask why we should reward these celebrities. A degree should be limited to academic study."

And so with so little to say in favour of celebrity degrees, perhaps the only one that makes sense at all is the one given to Kermit the Frog, who was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Amphibious Letters in 1996 by Long Island University.

"It's the only one I support," said Mr McGovern. "It was a fake degree for a fake character, which is fitting."

Additional reporting by Kayleen Devlin and Amber Haque