Let me set the scene: it's graduation day 19 May 1996. You've passed the exams, handed in the dissertation and survived your last stress-induced existential crisis as an undergraduate. You sit alongside your peers, a sea of oversized gowns, basking in the glow of your academic superio– hold on, is that Kermit the Frog?
Yes. This actually happened. In 1996, Kermit the Frog delivered the commencement speech at Southampton College, New York, in front of 245 graduates after receiving an honorary degree for his 'significant environmental work'. We live in a world where anything is possible, and that includes transforming celebrities and even puppets into instant academics.
In 2010, Donald Trump was controversially presented the honorary award of 'doctor of business administration' from Robert Gordon University. This was rescinded, however, in 2015, the same year Ed Sheeran received an honorary doctorate for his 'outstanding contribution to music' from University Campus Suffolk. I should note that Trump once dispassionately called higher education 'a means to an end' and Ed Sheeran left school at 16.
It gets worse. Fred Goodwin was awarded an honorary degree by Glasgow University in 2002 for 'services to banking'. This was before he reported losses of over £24 billion as chief executive of the Royal Bank of Scotland, and then resigned with a £700,000 per year pension. Former X-Factor judge Dannii Minogue was also awarded an honorary doctorate from Solent University for her 'major contribution to the entertainment industry'. In a statement, she said that she was 'shocked and honoured' by the award, though probably not as shocked as the graduates who had actually earned their diplomas. Just last week, Billy Connolly picked up his fourth honorary degree, this time from Strathclyde University, despite admitting that the closest he'd come to a university as a young man was to 'deliver coal'.
But it's not the recipients of honorary degrees that I find most irksome, it's the fact that they are completely and utterly useless. It is an unearned degree, one that does not entitle the recipient to legitimately prefix their name with 'doctor' or use it to further their professional career, and judging from the random to bizarre list of celebrities who have been conferred this illustrious honour, it seems that the criteria for achieving the award is flexible at best.
Furthermore, the history of the honorary degree reeks of sycophantic flattery. The first was awarded to Lionel Woodville in the 1470s by the University of Oxford. Woodville was, conveniently, the brother-in-law of Edward IV, and today the university freely admits that the gesture was clearly a ploy to gain favour with a man of significant influence.
Over 500 years later, universities are still kissing-up to anyone with deep enough pockets. Institutions across the world annually dish out honorary degrees in return for free publicity and a gracious donation from the recipient. In the UK, no extensive research has been conducted into how many beneficiaries have received honorary degrees after donating to the university which conferred them the award, but in America, Burlington Free Press writer Tim Johnson has shown that these 'degrees' are big business.
In 2015, Johnson compiled a list of everyone who had received an honorary degree from the University of Vermont between 2002 and 2012 and then investigated how many of them had donated to the institution in the preceding decade. Of the 60 recipients, he discovered that 35 had happened to have made an average donation of $228,248. His findings undermine the value of honorary degrees as a revered institutional tradition and show them for what they really are: an opportunity to secure funding and publicity.
The jig is up. It's high time universities dropped the facade and began recognising excellence more sincerely and altruistically. When institutions invite celebrities and pop stars on stage to address an audience of graduates on what should be one of the most rewarding days of their lives, they confirm that in life it is not what you know, but who you know that counts, and it is not what you do, but what you earn that will springboard you to the top. In an world of instant fame, instant gratification and instant coffee, do we really need instant academics?
Illustration of Kermit by Eva Rinaldi