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Last month, the university awarded notable names such as Matt Lucas honorary degrees in recognition of their achievements in their respective fields. Lily Hammond unpicks whether this practice has a place in the academic world.

The University of Bristol has recently awarded honorary degrees to a number of public figures as recognition of their various achievements. Matt Lucas (TV comedian, actor and screenwriter), Chrissie Wellington (four-time winner of Ironman World Championships) and Chris Jolly (Managing Director of Jolly Learning Ltd) were all awarded with doctorates in their respective fields without having done any of the usual requirements that the rest of us would have to endure.

Related article: Chrissie Wellington and Chris Jolly awarded with honorary Bristol degrees

Now don’t get me wrong, I understand the basis for these honorary degrees. It is a formal recognition from an established institution for an amazing accomplishment. And all three alumni have done just that…but why award them with a degree?

For the majority of the student population the time and effort put in to getting a degree is all-consuming for the period that we are at university. Dissertations and examinations are hard, and although I’m not suggesting that the achievements of honorary degree members were not difficult in the making, to receive the same level of recognition without the same hardships just feels a bit unfair. It makes you feel a bit mugged off.

And ironically, this was the very stem of Matt Lucas’ acceptance speech. He spoke of his unworthiness in accepting the doctorate compared to those with ‘actual degrees’, having dropped out of his final year at Bristol after ‘not understanding a word’. He called himself a ‘charlatan’ and the University ‘fools’ for offering him the award. Although all said in jest and made for a very good “graduation” speech, there was a definite underlying tone of embarrassment on Lucas’ half as he accepted something which, I believe, he thought himself to be undeserving of.

‘Why undermine the reputation of a degree?’

Chrissie Wellington, a female endurance athlete, received a Doctorate of Law from the University of Bristol which I also find slightly baffling. This is due to the fact that her contribution is in that of the sporting world rather than having any direct relation to the field of law. As well as this, unlike the other two, Chrissie had no previous connections to the University of Bristol at all, having got a first class degree in Geography from the University of Birmingham.

I know that it is not custom for people with honorary degrees to actually use their full title or put letters after their name but that poses the question, why are they awarded degrees and not another form of award? If it is a purely decorative endeavour, then why undermine the reputation of a degree in the process?

I also think it is naïve to view honorary degrees as a purely altruistic endeavour on behalf of the university. Although not everyone that receives one is a household name – take Chris Jolly for instance – a substantial number of those given honorary degrees would be identified as a celebrity. It is in the interest of the university in terms of publicity to award those who are rich and famous so that the public might care. In doing this however, universities are awarding fame and celebrity success rather than academia. And if universities are not prioritising the celebration of academia, then what institution is?

For me, the whole concept of an honorary degree is flawed. Degrees are a level of qualification that you have to earn in a certain way, showing real dedication and passion for a particular subject. Although acknowledgment of other achievements is obviously hugely important, let’s not group the celebrity world and academia together.


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