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Time to end perception of degrees for sale

Written By: - Date published: 6:14 pm, December 4th, 2013 - 49 comments
Categories: education, tertiary education - Tags:

The All Blacks do not give out honorary test caps to the chief financial officer of insurance sponsor AIG. Politicians no longer give seats in a House of Lords to their almsgivers and patrons. Perhaps it is time to question why our most prestigious universities give away honorary doctorates to significant benefactors.

A couple of weeks ago Victoria University of Wellington announced it would confer an honorary degree on long-time donor and business leader Paul Baines. The university lists Mr Baines in its annual report as a member of its Benefactors’ Circle, which comprises its “most significant donors and sponsors”. To qualify as a member of the Benefactors’ Circle, Mr Baines has to have donated at least $10,000 to the university.

Now, I have nothing against Mr Baines. I do not know who he is. The university’s media release on his award lists his many significant contributions to the university and to New Zealand’s business community, not all of them financial. He may be as worthy as any other honorary degree recipient.

However, most of the people who cross the Michael Fowler Centre stage and graduate with a doctorate next month will have studied at the highest level for many years to earn their qualification. Their degrees recognise hard work and academic excellence. When universities give them away to people who have not studied it undermines the honour they bestow upon their true students. All too often, universities give away honorary degrees in circumstances that appear be either about rewarding the university rather than the recipient, or rewarding the recipient for nothing more than making a financial donation – in other words, buying a doctorate.

Two common forms of this practice are universities awarding degrees to celebrities to bring prestige and publicity to that university, and universities awarding degrees to major financial donors in circumstances that outsiders may view either as rewards for the donations or an encouragement for keep the money flowing. Neither of these practices exhibits the academic integrity and respect for their students that one might expect of highly regarded institutions of learning.

Last year the New Zealand Herald revealed New Zealand universities spent more than $250,000 awarding honorary degrees to celebrities and visiting dignitaries. It listed celebrity recipients such as the Topp Twins, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, Richie McCaw, Peter Jackson, Neil and Tim Finn, and former prime ministers Jim Bolger and Helen Clark.

Owen Glenn got an honorary degree from the University of Auckland after donating $7.5 million to its business school. Singaporean businessman Lee Seng Tee, funded a lecture series in Antarctic studies at Victoria University, and then received a doctorate. And Sir Eion Edgar funded the University of Otago Edgar Centre for Diabetes and Obesity Research in 2003, the same year he received an honorary doctorate there.

Among academics, there is no worse allegation than that one did not earn their degree, but instead bought it with either cash or favours. Perhaps it is time that New Zealand universities removed the perception of corruption that will continue to persist when they hand out degrees to major financial donors.

Some of the world’s most prestigious universities, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cornell, UCLA and Stanford, do not confer honorary degrees. Each has alternative awards they confer upon worthy members of the public instead.

New Zealand universities should follow these examples. We should let the world know there is only one way to receive a doctorate in New Zealand and that is by studying and working hard to earn the qualification. Certainly, we must honour members of the public for their achievements and their contributions but do not honour them with a degree they have not earned.

Alternatively, our universities may inadvertently end up in the company of institutions such as this.

Stephen Day

49 comments on “Time to end perception of degrees for sale”

  1. red blooded 1

    I absolutely agree. It’s part of the creeping commercialisation of our education system: institutions (including schools) set up as competing enterprises, selling access to their facilities and expertise to overseas students in order to fund their services to the NZ kids (and thus creating a higher student-teacher ratio and a whole set of new demands on teachers), downgrading of teacher education to an apprenticeship-style model, charter schools staffed by people with no teacher training or experience, universities setting up “PPP”s to help fund research (with the inevitable effect that research that is not immediately commercially viable is unlikely to be funded)… It may seem like I’m getting off the point but these are all effects of taking a commercial model of thinking and applying it to education. Put that together with long term, chronic underfunding and what do you get? Donor doctorates.

    • millsy 1.1

      To be honest, I am sure that our universites would rather, if they could, just kick all the New Zealanders out of their campuses and just purely educate international students.

  2. Demi 2

    My husband took 7 yrs to do his doctorate in Science, we called it the mistress as it took him away from our family a lot. It was a hell of a lot of work and these honorary doctorates do diminish the work that was done. I like the idea of a separate system for people who donate money or are ex students etc.

  3. QoT 3

    At one of my graduations the valedictorian was a celebrity who’d been given an honorary degree. It annoyed me at the time because he wasn’t part of the student corps, he hadn’t done the work all of us were there to celebrate, and it felt very much like the university council expected us all to be impressed that Such An Important Person was deigning to share his thoughts with us, instead of one of our own peers.

    • rhinocrates 3.1

      I agree. These people are embarrassing, and show what cynical, mercenary contempt the university has for its real students and academics. They only declare that they’re diploma mills that have particularly high fees compared to the South American stereotypes when in fact their faculty that does real work is insulted by such money-grubbing.

      It’s shameful and any university that cares about its reputation – oh, sorry, I think “brand” is the word we use now – should cease this practise.

      Peter Jackson has an honorary degree. Whoop-de-fucking-do. OK, he’s made films that might be good or bad but in any case involved years of hard work and skill and made lots of money (from taxpayers). That’s fine, so let him take his money, his jet, his Oscar – but the shameful spectacle of a university trying to gain “prestige” by grabbing at his ankles so that it can be dragged along across the Hollywood red carpet is humiliating to those who submitted to the discipline of study.

      And if anyone wants to call me elitist, I say, “Fine, get a PhD through work and then tell me how easy it is.”

      • Murray Olsen 3.1.1

        Getting a PhD wasn’t the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It required a lot of work, but I think cleaning toilets for 8 years would have been harder for me.

        I don’t really care much about honorary degrees. They’re something that exists on the administrative, management and financial level of the universities. These parts are only accidentally connected to the places where the actual academic work is done. What I do object to is the dumbing down of Bachelors and Masters degrees so that fee paying students will keep enrolling. As always, I blame all ACT governments since 1984 for this development. They’ve turned education into a commodity where, as long as the student pays, they get their diploma.

        • karol

          Agreed, MO.

        • One Anonymous Knucklehead

          +1 MO

        • KJT

          Agree with Murray.

          Well. As I pretty much continued with a full time job/business while doing post graduate study I don’t think it is tha–at hard.

          With “Honorary degrees, so long as it is clear they are “honorary” degrees I don’t see a problem. It is a way of acknowledging someone who has contributed to the University or public life.

          If someone meets the requirements in another way, such as life achievements in the field then I consider they may well have earned a degree. (Not just an honorary one).

          The real issue, as Murray points out, is, the “bums on seats” degradation of standards.
          In one of my qualifications, for example, all the foreign fee paying students pass. Working with the graduates, I would say less than 40% meet the standard.
          The standard of NZ students has also dropped markedly with the reduction in on the job experience, and expansion of classroom time, so the tertiary institutions can get more fee paying “bums on seats”.

          The commercial model does not work for education.

          Neither does top down authoritarian management.
          (Does not work well for business either, except to justify grossly inflated salaries for managers).

          • Murray Olsen

            A PhD requires commitment and perseverance over a more or less extended period of time. It also allows the candidate to utilise their creativity, make a contribution to the discipline, follow their curiosity, and learn a hell of a lot about a specialised area. I saw it as far more of a rewarding opportunity than as hard work. Most of the work was enjoyable, challenging, and rewarding. The hardest part has been paying back the student loan.

            • KJT

              Yes. Having the time and resources, while at Uni to study interesting ideas and facts in depth was a privilege and a delight.

    • alwyn 3.2

      At the time when one of my nephews was graduating, after a lot of very hard study, one of the PhDs awarded by the University was a retired politician who was given an honorary degree. It annoyed my nephew because she wasn’t part of the student corp and hadn’t done the work.
      That was of course Helen Clark. I presume she will read this post, feel abjectly ashamed, and hand back her honorary degree on the grounds she hadn’t earned it.

      The best views on the subject were those of Richard Feynman, Physicist.
      “I remember the work I did to get a real degree at Princeton and the guys on the same platform receiving honorary degrees without work – and felt an “honorary degree” was a debasement of the idea of a “degree which confirms certain work has been accomplished”. It is like giving an “honorary electricians license” “.
      Feynman wrote this when rejecting an offer to confer on him an honorary degree. He never accepted such an award.

      Come on Helen. Give yours back.

  4. Philj 4

    Monetisation of life itself. It’s the commodification and corruption
    of demockary.

  5. Draco T Bastard 5

    An honorary degree should have to apply to what a person has done in their life that would equate to doing an actual degree. It shouldn’t be awarded just because someone has donated to the university.

    • swordfish 5.1

      My thoughts entirely, Draco.

      In general, I think of honorary degrees as bordering on worthless. However, if, for example, someone went straight into journalism after leaving high school (ie no Uni), acquired a good deal of expertise on a particular subject over the years, and subsequently wrote a sophisticated, perhaps ground-breaking, book on the subject – then I think there is a place for universities to recognise that. Especially if it equates to – or goes beyond – the work required for a PhD.

  6. rhinocrates 6

    I agree totally. It’s like calling someone an “Honorary Dentist” – it’s just a joke at best, but at worst, honorary degrees are simony; they embarrass those who’ve worked hard to gain their degrees and undermine the integrity and intellectual value of universities, making them look like whores (and apologies to honest sex workers).

    A professor of mine said of higher study when he came to a crossroads in his career, “it was either a Porsche or a PhD”. He took the PhD and inspired generations through hard work. If you want a Porsche, pay for it, be happy with it and masturbate over it as much as you like.

    • rhinocrates 6.1

      edit fubar… to amend “as much as you like and don’t expect applause as well, Mr Jackson.”

  7. Thanks for the comments all. I should clarify that I’m not saying this guy bought a degree – just that the practice of honorary degrees creates an unhealthy perception that degrees can be and sometimes are bought. Some people will pay big money for status, and honorary degrees, although academically worthless, do carry significant status.

    Red Blooded – I don’t think you are off topic. The increasing commercialisation of tertiary education incentivises universities, wananga and polytechnics to act in increasing bizarre ways. Using honorary degrees to reward financial support is just one example of watering down academic credibility so as to meet commercial funders half way.

  8. rhinocrates 8

    Dunno how that happened, only posted once.

    FYI lprent, there seems to be a technical problem – first my comment didn’t appear at all, and shutting down Safari and restarting it and then clicking on The Standard showed that my reply had been duplicated. Please delete one of them.

    Hope that’s useful?

    • lprent 8.1

      All comments are getting holdups. Lot of spam getting checked.

      • rhinocrates 8.1.1

        Yeah, I don’t envy you for the site maintenance job. Just hoping that feedback gives you some help in finding out what the problems are.

      • Ake ake ake 8.1.2

        I think some of us should get together and get you a very generous voucher for you to dine out at a restaurant as the festive season approaches. You deserve a knighthood or honorary doctorate for what you do here.

        • lprent

          I never have time to go out anyway. Besides, my sister and parents volunteered us to host xmas dinner. Then it is off to for another family post Xmas. I am starting to starve now in anticipation…

          • greywarbler

            Good man with the starving. I am doing the same – getting in training for matchfitness for the Big Day. Even thinking of a vegetarian diet or vegan so much discussed lately here, but after Christmas. Family, fullness and fun is the order of the day, and some days after as well.

  9. rhinocrates 9

    Dunno how that happened, only posted once.

    FYI lprent, there seems to be a technical problem – first my comment didn’t appear at all, and shutting down Safari and restarting it and then clicking on The Standard showed that my reply had been duplicated. Please delete one of them.

    Hope that’s useful?

  10. greywarbler 10

    Would Patron be a better title? Money assisting the university is rather handy, so how it can it be acknowledged and the person donating it be incorporated into the hierarchy?

  11. Rodel 11

    A good post.
    How about Dr Banks? Dr Key , Dr dot com? or even ha ha ha Dr Craig eventually?
    Just give them Bachelor or Masters toy degrees but not PhDs.

  12. Richard Christie 12

    Honorary degrees, as with knighthoods, it says more about the calibre person who accepts the offer of the honour than they could ever possibly realise.

  13. RedBaronCV 13

    Started as a sharebroker in Jarden and Co if I have the right one. Then CS First Boston then Telecom director and other public coys. Been around Wellington for quite a while.

  14. The Wolf 14

    Tall poppy syndrome much?

  15. infused 15

    That moment when you realize that most degrees are total bullshit anyway…

    • Tat Loo (CV) 15.1

      Especially degrees in commerce and economics. Our society needs people who can think about meaning, values, and to build them into human systems for local communities.

      • KJT 15.1.1

        Hang on. I found studying economics and management useful.

        That is when I realised “mainstream” economics bore no relationship to the real world outside, whatsoever, and started reading Steven Kean, Ha Joon Chang, Krugman et al.

        The funniest part about management studies was not being believed by the Tutor when I talked about real life occurrences.

    • Rodel 15.2

      obviously hasn’t qualified for one …sorry..i know a few grumpy people with that attitude.

      • Murray Olsen 15.2.1

        Funny, you mirrored my thoughts. I’ve known a few absolute geniuses in my time who have totally failed to fulfil the requirements, then decided retrospectively that degrees were a load of shit. As far as I know, they’re still waiting for their brilliance to be recognised.

        • ropata

          maybe they failed because of a giant atheist conspiracy to suppress the TRUTH about dinosaurs, moon landings, chemtrails, biblical floods, and the Earth was created “on Sunday the 21st of October, 4004 B.C., at exactly 9:00 A.M., because God liked to get work done early in the morning while he was feeling fresh.” (according to Pratchett & Gaiman) 😛

  16. Tracey 16

    Right up there with most of the highest honors

  17. One Anonymous Knucklehead 17

    I can’t see anything wrong with honorary degrees. Does anyone seriously pretend they’re the real thing, or not suffer ridicule if caught doing so? The sting of academic disdain might seem baffling to someone honoured in this way, and certainly provides (yet) another example of the pettiness of academia.

    It’s not like they’re a recent invention cooked up by Stephen Joyce.

    As for the sale of honorary degrees, allegations of this sort are commonplace, but there are plenty of places the wealthy can spend their money; it seems to me that donation to an institute of higher learning is a relatively enlightened way to do so, honours bestowed as a result are one way to say thanks.

    Pat the rich man on the head, professor. He ain’t after your job.

    • KJT 17.1

      I find academics rather pretentious at times. Not all. There were some amazing people there, also.

      Just one example being the fake outrage about plagiarism, as they deliver a totally boring lecture, straight from the textbook!

    • Rogue Trooper 17.2

      Agree OAKIE

  18. grumpy 18

    I worked bloody hard for my degree in engineering but I know of others who have developed huge skill and knowlege in a technical field who probably would have been fitting recipients of an honorary degree. John Britten and Bruce MacLaren spring to mind.

  19. Rogue Trooper 19

    Could not care less if I had earned a PhD in caring less 😀
    “The fool doth think he is wise but the wise man knows himself to be a fool”- As We Like It
    (Be yourself, everybody else is already taken- Oscar Wilde).

    • greywarbler 19.1

      +1 Oscar was unique.
      By the way you put Mr C under one of my comments. I don’t understand your morse code mind. What can it mean?

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