Degree for Sale?

Cambridge should cash in on the ‘honorary degree’ phenomenon.

aru Cambridge Chief Rabbi degrees honorary degrees honorary doctorate Kylie Minogue margaret thatcher Nelson Mandela Quentin Blake Robinson College

It’s hard to get het up over honorary degrees. So why does the fact that Anglia Ruskin gave Kylie Minogue one stick in my throat?

Occasionally, honorary accolades have caused controversy. Margaret Thatcher managed to attain one in 1985 after a strop, when Oxford denied her the honorary degree that they normally gave to British Prime Ministers. Word on the street says she never visited Oxford again, much to the relief of everyone in Oxford.

But iron women aside, it’s very hard to make a fuss over honorary degrees. A glance at the Cambridge list of recipients of degrees honoris causa (never use English when Latin will do) confirms this: such innocuous figures as the Chief Rabbi, Nelson Mandela and the incomparable Quentin Blake. How could anyone deny those who have achieved something in life a nice new gown, a jolly good lunch and an extra title?

Kylie dons the traditional cap and gown.

But last week ARU awarded Kylie an honorary degree for her achievements in promoting cancer relief. Now there is no doubt she has achieved something great. No one can possibly argue that cancer relief is an unworthy cause, and no one can deny that Kylie has inspired many cancer sufferers. And yet I can’t help but find it strange that she should be presented an academic award that didn’t require any academic ability at all. Courage, bravery and skill – yes. Book learning – no.

At the moment, we have to choose whether Kylie is more worthy of recognition than Ted Hughes, Alex Ferguson or Kiri Te Kanawa. Let us dodge these value judgments: instead of using precious time and ceremony to reward people who have done something worthy, why not sell a set amount of honorary degrees each year? Market them as a reward for philanthropy and watch as rich-but-dim businessman queue up to become a Doctor of Letters. There is lots of precedent for rewarding patronage (Robinson College, anyone?).

Why shouldn’t we capitalise on Cambridge’s academic pedigree and sell it in careful chunks to swell our coffers?