On September 26, Mysuru City Police, acting on a tip off, raided a private hotel where a suspected fake University had organised a ceremony to confer honorary doctorates and arrested three persons. Ironically, a local politician who was the chief guest hadn’t turned up alleging that the organisers failed to follow social distancing norms. The self-styled ‘International Global Peace University’ had reportedly collected money ranging from Rs 20,000 to Rs 1 lakh for award of “degrees” from over 150 gullible candidates. The fake University had also deployed many agents who were paid huge commissions to bring candidates.
This is not the first time that such an incident has been reported. But what is disconcerting is that despite the COVID-19 situation, the manner in which unscrupulous elements seem to operate with impunity is disconcerting.
More recently in Kerala a self-styled representative Ballsbridge University, Commonwealth of Dominica was apprehended for distributing fake honorary degrees. It was found that the names of awardees get finalized after receiving a reasonable handling fee for getting an honorary degree. Such cases are just a tip of the ice-berg.
The menace of fake degrees is rampant and time and again there are instances where many so called Professors get caught possessing fake degrees and ultimately losing their jobs. Recently at least 11 professors from government arts and science colleges in Tamil Nadu have been caught with fake PhD certificates. The erring faculty members had submitted fake PhD certificates from non-existent universities in Meghalaya, Rajasthan and Bihar. According to an RTI reply, 1187 fake degrees were detected in the Mumbai University between the academic years 2012-13 and 2015-16. It seems that a well-knit syndicate operates in so far as doling out fake degrees are concerned. For every case unearthed there could be many more going undetected.
On one hand we have many eager students who put in all efforts so as to enter the portals of reputed Universities for gaining knowledge in their fields of choice. But there are some others who want to gain degrees without putting in any hard work by taking short cuts. Well, then are “shady promoters” of some fake universities and educational institutions in the private sector that seem to operate with clandestine credentials under the garb of offering education – whatever that means.
Can the malpractices be curbed using technology like giving a QR code on educational certificates? UGC had introduced QR code in the National Eligibility Test (NET) certificate, when scanned, will lead to the UGC’s website which will have the picture of the candidate along with the score and exam details. While individuals selling fake diplomas need to be brought to book by swift filing of charge sheets, it needs to be recognised that fake certificates are not just a minor moral problem, they destroy lives!
According to the University Grants Commission (UGC), 24 fake Universities have been identified as on date. While Uttar Pradesh tops with 8 of them, it is followed by Delhi (7), West Bengal, Odisha (2 each), Karnataka, Kerala, Maharashtra, Puducherry and Andhra Pradesh (one each). In terms of Section 23 of the UGC Act, unrecognized institutions cannot use “University” in their names.
When it comes to technical education, the scene is scarier. According to the All India Council for Technical Education, nearly 279 Engineering/Technical Institutes have been found offering courses without approval. Delhi tops with 64 such institutions, followed by Telangana, West Bengal, Karnataka, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar etc.
The "honorary degree" is said to have its origins at the Oxford University in 1478 when its strict academic requirements were rather “excused”. Yes, the first honorary degree (the modern-day equivalent of a PhD) in history was awarded to the well-connected, wealthy and noble standing Bishop Lionel Woodville. He was the head of the Cathedral Church of St Peter and the brother-in law of King Edward IV.
More recently, the Virginia Tech University in the US gave away an honorary doctorate degree to a rather unusual awardee. Yes, Moose Davis, an 8-year-old Labrador retriever, was awarded an honorary doctorate in veterinary medicine for serving the University’s “Cook Counselling” centre for the last 6 years, aiding in more than 7,500 counselling sessions and over 500 outreach events. According to the University it was “recognising work of Dr Moose Davis who had spent a career serving and supporting" the university community.
Thereafter, it rather became a norm for Universities world over to award honorary doctorates to people they believe should be appreciated for their contributions to a particular field. Usually the administration of a Central University submits a proposal before the executive/academic Council to grant such degrees. Nonetheless, awarding honorary degrees are not just a routine part of graduation ceremonies at several Universities. The occasion is often well utilised to build relationships with the rich, famous and well-connected but also as a means to secure financial donations.
However, some exceptions do exist. Although the University of Virginia, founded by the third US President, Thomas Jefferson in 1819, made the strategic decision to avoid honorary degrees, it confers the Thomas Jefferson Award in Law and the Thomas Jefferson Medal in Architecture every year in recognition of scholars outside the University. The Cornell University founded in 1865 by Ezra Cornell and Andrew Dickson White and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology which held its first graduation ceremony in 1868 do not award honorary degrees. MIT's founder, William Barton Rogers believed that the practice of giving honorary degrees as "literary almsgiving ... of spurious merit and noisy popularity." Similarly, the Stanford University, founded in 1885 by California Senator Leland Stanford and his wife, Jane and the Rice University, which was “gifted to the city of Houston” in 1891 by Massachusetts-born millionaire William Marsh Rice where he made his fortune do not award honorary degrees.
What is common between Shahrukh Khan, Amitabh Bacchan, Shilpa Shetty, Shabana Azmi and Pretty Zinta to name a few? They have been honoured with honorary doctorates.
Any guesses as to who holds the maximum number of honorary degrees as on date? Yes, it is Rev. Theodore Martin Hesburgh. Considered the most influential priest in America, he is credited for having stood up to both the White House and the Vatican, besides transforming the Catholic higher education in America by raising a powerful moral voice in national affairs. Father Hesburgh was the President of the University of Notre Dame for 35 years. Besides being the only Catholic priest ever elected to Harvard’s Board of Overseers, he served on 16 presidential commissions, in both Democratic and Republican administrations. He was bestowed an honorary degree by the Le Moyne College in Syracuse, New York in 1954 but he went on to receive a whopping 150 of them, the last was in 2002 by the University of San Diego.
When Harvard awarded an honorary Master of Arts degree to American animation industry pioneer Walter Elias Disney in 1938, his citation read: "A magician who has created a modern dwelling for the Muses."
Not every awardee accepts honorary degrees. Prime Minister Narendra Modi declined to accept an honorary degree (Doctor of Laws) from the Banaras Hindu University at its Centenary Year Convocation a few years ago. He rightly maintained that he does not "accept such honour”, just to visit an institution like BHU is a matter of great pride for him. He had in 2014, in the run up to his US visit, declined the proposal of a University in Louisiana to confer an honorary doctorate on him in recognition of his contribution towards social transformation, especially for empowering women and minorities in Gujarat. Even as Chief Minister of Gujarat, Modi declined honorary doctorates from various universities. There are many more who have politely declined.
Awarding honorary doctorates to undeserving candidates for a consideration is demeaning the doctorate degree itself. This is the essence of a plea regarding honorary degrees. Let us await the outcome of a petition that has requested the court to issue a direction to the Centre to fix norms for awarding of doctorate degrees.