Come On Universities, Stop Giving Out Honorary Degrees as a Marketing Tactic!

In uncertain economic times, education is and always has been the best tool for alleviating poverty in modern society. Especially in a country where the cost of education is proposed to skyrocket, and debate around whether many university degrees are outdated, many people question whether the risk is worth the payout at the end.

For someone who is in my final year of a university degree, it involves a lot of hard work and sacrifice. The legend of the broke university student endures on. So naturally it annoyed me to see on my Facebook news feed that of all people, Will Ferrell, was awarded an honorary degree from USC!


Yeah, this guy. I mean I think he is really funny. Elf is basically my favourite Christmas movie. I literally find everything he does funny. Except putting his balls on another man’s drum kit. But an honorary degree? It makes you wonder what is going through these institutions minds to choose this person to honour.

P.S. He did graduate with a Degree in Sports Information Journalism from USC in 1990. I guess it helped him in all of his sport related movies? (When I Googled ‘Will Ferrell Sports’ this photo came up).

I bet his wife loves this…me not so much. He really likes to get in the nude…


There is a general understanding that many universities in the United States and in Great Britain are known for awarding honorary doctorates to celebrities. If you are interested, the Business Insider has put together a list of celebrities who have one. I mean, some of these people did study something at their alma mater, but often their honorary doctorate is not related to their original studies.

Australian institutions are not immune to this either. Cate Blanchett has been awarded two honorary degrees;  a Doctor of Letters from both the University of Sydney and Macquarie University. Considering she actually graduated from the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA) in 1992, shouldn’t they be honouring her instead?



Lets Talk About The Origins of the Honorary Degree/Doctorate, shall we?

The origins of the honorary degree are not agreed upon by scholars, although there is consensus that the honoris causa, a degree awarded without need for examination as a recognition of merithas only existed from the beginning of the nineteenth century. They were often awarded to professors that did not hold a doctorate for them to teach and deliver doctorates to other students. The regularity of awarding honorary degrees gave the universities an excuse for a celebration as well.



The University of Oxford is one of the first institutions to bestow this award, to Lionel Woodville, around the year 1478-79. As he was a relation to Edward IV and already achieved a Bachelor of Canon Law, he was conferred the degree of a Doctorate of Canon Law. The reasoning behind this seems to be an attempt to honour and keep in good relations with someone with such influence.


It starts to become obvious that institutions were taking advantage of the PR from bestowing important people awards without much meaning, as most institutions discourage the use of the word ‘doctor’ from an honorary degree. There are plenty of opinion articles online asking why institutions are still giving them out. From looking at many examples of recent honorary degree recipients, it seems to be a case of a celebrity showing off how great a university is for giving them such recognition.


The Power of the Celebrity Endorsement in Marketing

It is most likely argued that the presentation and acceptance of that honorary degree is a form of celebrity endorsement for the university. The degree serves as a novelty to the recipient, but is invaluable exposure for the institution. Celebrity endorsements are a powerful tool, which can increase the consumers connection and increase brand equity. Determinants shown to effect the success of a celebrity endorsement include attractiveness, trustworthiness and expertise. Probably explains why George Clooney is the face for Nespresso, and not for nipple-clad batsuits…



A recognisable face next to a brand will make consumers (in this case, prospective students) have a positive association to the brand (in this case, the university).

Celebrity endorsements are great and all, but could another marketing tactic be more effective at attracting students who feel more unsure about their economic future than the generations before them? Even large ad agencies and advertising trade publications have acknowledged this. Recently one of the most notable university advertisements has come from Western Sydney University, with 90 second ads that tell transformation stories of their alumni. The one below tells the story of Deng Thiak Adut, who came to Sydney to escape the war torn Sudan. He taught himself how to read and successfully completed a law degree at WSU.



Universities should aim to make better alumni connections and use their stories as unique selling propositions to encourage enrolments. Or if they insist on  giving famous personalities recognition, make them contribute some of their time or money to that institution. Some ideas include great actors becoming mentors to acting faculties, or successful journalists running workshops/panel discussions for students to learn more.

And to end on a happy note, the Johns Hopkins University School of Education awarded a service dog an honorary degree for having attended all of his owner’s classes. His owner received his Masters of Science in Counselling at the same ceremony.


Now there’s someone who deserved an honorary degree!





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