Celebrity honorary degrees - fair or about showbusiness?

Fiona Phillips, Martyn Williams and Stephen Fry
Image caption Broadcaster Fiona Phillips, rugby player Martyn Williams and comedian, writer and presenter Stephen Fry are honorary fellows at Cardiff University

They are a time for students to celebrate gaining a degree after years of hard work - but graduation ceremonies are also an arena for universities to showcase some of the famous names who have been awarded honorary fellowships and degrees.

In Wales this year for instance, Aberystwyth gave honorary fellowships to Alex Jones, presenter of the BBC's The One Show, Hollywood actor Michael Sheen and the Times columnist, novelist and prolific tweeter Caitlin Moran.

On Cardiff University's roll of honorary fellows are Stephen Fry and TV presenters Fiona Phillips and Carol Vorderman.

Swansea University has given honorary degrees to the actress Ruth Madoc and Wales rugby winger Shane Williams, while opera singer Bryn Terfel has received an honorary doctorate from Bangor University.

The institutions say they are keen to pay tribute to leading names in the sporting, showbiz and political worlds who have shown "excellence and dedication in their fields".

But Nick Seaton, secretary for the Campaign for Real Education, which aims to raise standards in education, said he believed they were more a sign of our "celebrity-obsessed" culture.

"I think to a certain extent it devalues the work of the youngsters who put in three to four years of solid work to get a degree," he added.

"No matter who you are or who you know, to give them away without a solid background of work doesn't seem quite right."

So why exactly do universities award honorary degrees and fellowships - and is it fair that they are given to the famous?

Cardiff University said it worked hard to ensure it maintains a long-term relationship with those it honours.

"We try to distinguish between honorary fellowships and honorary degrees as we're aware that 4-5,000 students are in our graduation ceremonies each year and they have put in years of work to get a degree," said Louise Casella, director of strategic development.

"So we only give honorary degrees to people with real academic integrity.

"We are more likely to give honorary fellowships and that is about building long-term relationships with people who we invite to become part of the university and who have achieved excellence in a lifetime of work.

"For example, Stephen Fry became patron of our neuroscience and mental health institute after he received his honorary fellowship."

She said students and staff were asked to nominate people they believe deserved a university honour, and they typically get about 80 to 90 suggestions each year.

The names are discussed by a committee represented by about 10 to 12 people from across the university who whittle them down to a shortlist. They are then confirmed by the university governing council.

"We tend to look for criteria such as whether someone is a very eminent academic, or it might be someone who has come to the end of a distinguished career, like Martyn Williams this year," she said.

"We look for a Welsh connection or a Cardiff connection or a strong interest in the work we do.

"Stephen Fry was made a fellow as he had shown a lot of interest in the work done at the university with depression and mental health issues."

TV presenter Fiona Phillips, who was made an honorary fellow of Cardiff University in 2011 for her work to raise awareness of Alzheimer's disease, said she felt it was important to maintain a relationship with the institution.

Image caption Novelist, columnist and keen Twitter user Caitlin Moran was honoured by Aberystwyth University

"I was given an honorary degree by Southampton Solent University for my work in the media but they have never asked me to be involved there at all," she said.

"I thought they would get me down there to mentor students and lecture as they have a very good media department there, so you think what was that about?

"But I felt honoured to get a fellowship at Cardiff - if you're making a contribution that's fine.

"In Cardiff I'm involved with them in an ongoing relationship as they do a lot of Alzheimer's research."

Actress Ruth Madoc, who has been honoured by Swansea University, Swansea Metropolitan and the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, said she felt it was right for people in showbusiness to be recognised.

"I think it's a good example for people to see that we are being honoured for having a long career, even if you haven't got a degree," she said.

"I go back for the graduation ceremonies when I can and it's lovely."

Stephanie Lloyd, the NUS Wales president, said students accept that an honorary degree was "different from a bachelor's in English literature or a master's in chemistry".

"We should commend universities that honour people who've reached the top of their field, sometimes without any formal higher education," she added.

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