Doctorates a dime a dozen?
The Mahanayake Theras of the three Nikayas recently requested
President Mahinda Rajapaksa to ban organisations that award doctorates
and titles like Deshamanya, Deshabandu, Deshashakthi to dubious people
who possessed little educational qualifications.
In their letter they said: "From ancient times honorary titles have
been awarded by our institutions to persons of high learning, those who
display exceptional qualities and serve the people and the country in
keeping with the traditions laid down by the Buddha. In the times of
ancient kings too they awarded such titles in accordance with tradition.
At present our institutions too award such titles in keeping with
tradition and safeguarding the honour of the titles and the
However in recent times we have seen such titles being awarded by
dubious organisations that portion out these honours for monetary gains
and other favours. This has demeaned the value of the titles given by
genuine institutions and belittled those who have been awarded genuine
"It can be observed that titles like Deshabandu, Deshamanya and
Deshashakthi had been awarded to persons who have not contributed in any
way to the betterment of society. People looked down by decent society
have been awarded honorary doctorates that should be given by accepted
universities to persons of learning and high standing. This is leading
to a certain kind of social menace.
Therefore we request the President to take urgent measures under the
existing legal framework to ban these organisations and safeguard the
honour of those titles".
Cabinet subsequently decided to appoint a committee to look into the
awarding of honorary doctorates and other academic titles by private
educational institutions. The committee comprises the secretaries of
five ministries, steered by the Minister of Education.
The practice of offering honorary status dates back to the middle
ages, when for various reasons a university might be persuaded, or
otherwise see fit, to grant exemption from some or all of the usual
statutory requirements for award of a degree.
The first recorded honorary degree was awarded to Lionel Woodville in
the late 1470s by the University of Oxford. He later became Bishop of
Salisbury. In the latter part of the sixteenth century, the granting of
honorary degrees became quite common, especially on the occasion of
royal visits to Oxford or Cambridge.
On the visit of James I to Oxford in 1605, for example, forty three
members of his retinue received the degree of Master of Arts, and the
Register of Convocation explicitly states that these were full degrees,
carrying the usual privileges (such as voting rights in Convocation and
Today, in most accredited universities, the Honorary Doctorates are
usually awarded at regular graduation ceremonies, at which the
recipients are often invited to make a speech of acceptance before the
assembled faculty and graduates - an event which often forms the
highlight of the ceremony. Generally universities nominate several
persons each year for Honorary Doctorates; these nominees usually go
through several committees before receiving approval.
The term honorary degree is a slight misnomer: honoris causa degrees,
being awarded by a university under the terms of its charter, may be
considered to have technically the same standing as 'real' degrees,
except where explicitly stated to the contrary. Honorary degrees are
often considered not to be of the same standing as substantive degrees,
except where the recipient has demonstrated an appropriate level of
academic scholarship that would ordinarily qualify them for the award of
a substantive degree.
Although higher doctorates such as DSc, DLitt, etc, are often awarded
honoris causa, in many countries (notably the UK, Australia and New
Zealand) it is possible formally to earn such a degree. This typically
involves the submission of a portfolio of peer-refereed research,
usually undertaken over a number of years, which has made a substantial
contribution to the academic field in question.
The university will appoint a panel of examiners who will consider
the case and prepare a report recommending whether or not the degree be
awarded. Usually, the applicant must have some strong formal connection
with the university in question, for example full-time academic staff,
or graduates of several years' standing.
Right and privileges
Between the two extremes of honouring celebrities and formally
assessing a portfolio of research, many universities use honorary
degrees to recognise achievements of intellectual rigor that are
comparable to an earned degree. Some specialised societies award
honorary fellowships in the same way as honorary degrees are awarded by
universities, and for similar reasons.
Traditionally an honorary degree or Doctorate is a university's way
of marking excellence and achievement. Cambridge claims it only awards
them to "members of the royal family, British subjects who are of
conspicuous merit or have done good service to the State or to the
university and foreigners of distinction". The roll call of those deemed
sufficiently worthy by the university includes Albert Einstein, Nelson
Mandela and Mother Teresa.
The reason universities are willing to confer honours on celebrities
is that both sides win. The university gets publicity by reaching out an
academic hand of welcome to someone famous, while the personality gets
to wear scarlet gowns with silk facings and soft black velvet bonnets -
sometimes with a golden tassel.
No sensible person would challenge a University's right and privilege
to offer degrees and Doctorates to deserving personalities. But the
crisis arises, as the Mahanayake Theras say, when some institutions
grant honorary doctorates in exchange for large donations.
Such honorary Doctorate recipients, particularly those who neither
have prior academic qualifications, nor excellence in life have been
criticised if they insist on being called 'Doctor' as a result of their
The honorific may mislead the general public about their
This problem is not specific to Sri Lanka. A number of other
countries also faced the same situation. For example, in 2001, George W.
Bush received an honorary degree from Yale University where he had
earned his bachelor's degree in history in 1968.
The majority of students and faculty chose to boycott the
university's 300th commencement.
In 1985, the University of Oxford voted to refuse Margaret Thatcher
an honorary degree in protest against her cuts in funding for higher
education. This award had always previously been given to all Prime
Ministers who had been educated at Oxford.
In 2007 protesters demanded that the University of Edinburgh revoke
an honorary degree awarded to Zimbabwean leader Robert Mugabe in 1984.
The University subsequently revealed plans to review its honorary
degree policy and strip certain figures of their honorary degrees who
did not deserve them.
They stipulated that when considering revoking the honorary degree of
a political figure, such reasons as human rights abuse or political
corruption would be considered. As a result, it was announced that
Mugabe had been stripped of his honorary degree.
Finally, we are faced with the 64-thousand dollar question. What can
our authorities do about it? Taking the cue from other countries, I
venture to suggest two solutions.
In many countries, including the United Kingdom, Australia, New
Zealand, and the United States, it is not usual for an honorary doctor
to use the formal title of 'doctor,' regardless of the background
circumstances for the award.
The recipient of an honorary degree might add the degree title after
the name, but it will always be made clear that the degree is honorary
by adding 'honorary' or 'honoris causa' or 'h.c.' in parenthesis after
the degree title. In many countries, one who holds an honorary doctorate
may use the title 'doctor' before the name, abbreviated Dr.(h.c.).
Sometimes, they use 'Hon' before the degree letters, for example, Hon D
In recent years, some universities have adopted entirely separate
post nominal titles for honorary degrees. This is in part due to the
confusion that honorary degrees have caused. It is now common to use
certain degrees, such as LL.D. or Hon.D., as purely honorary. For
instance, an honorary doctor of the Auckland University of Technology
takes the special title Hon.D. instead of the usual Ph.D. Some
universities, including the Open University grant Doctorates of the
University (D.Univ.) to selected nominees, while awarding Ph.D. or Ed.
D. degrees to those who have fulfilled the academic requirements.
Most American universities award the degrees of LL.D. (Doctor of
Laws), Litt.D. (Doctor of Letters), L.H.D. (Doctor of Humane Letters),
Sc.D. (Doctor of Science), Ped.D. (Doctor of Pedagogy) and D.D. (Doctor
of Divinity) only as honorary degrees. American universities do not have
the system of 'higher doctorates' used in the UK and at other institutes
around the world.
My second solution is this: the authority to grant academic,
professional, or other degrees and Doctorates recognising learning or
achievement should not be allowed to include as the functions of an
institution of education, unless its charter indicate the nature of the
degrees to be granted; and no institution should grant academic or
professional degrees without specific authorisation from the University
The UGC is the sole authority in Sri Lanka to approve degree awarding
institutes. It enjoys the statutory powers under Higher Education Act of
1978 to do so. Educationalists say that it is also the moral obligation
of UGC to uphold the dignity of the academic community.
If we are not careful, there is indeed a real danger that in the near
future - (or indeed are we already there?) the honorary doctorates
granted by our higher education institutions, would be regarded no
better than those issued by dubious organisations for which Sri Lankans
seem quite willing to pay good prices. Let sanity prevail!