Analysis: Higher degrees of celebrity

January 5, 2001

Some sports and television stars seek more than public adulation - they want academic recognition too, as Julie McCord discovers

It is a short distance from Salford University to the Granada Television studios of Coronation Street , but for actor Nigel Pivaro it was a giant leap.

When not working on his role as Terry Duckworth, who pops up intermittently on Britain's longest running television soap opera, Mr Pivaro studies contemporary military and international history full time. "It's a bit like spinning plates because acting is a crazy way of life. But when the opportunity comes to do TV work, I fit it in just like another student would a bar job," Mr Pivaro said.

The 40-year-old actor studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in his youth. In September last year, he became a student again after following up an advertisement for university courses in his home city of Salford.

"I have always been interested in history and current affairs, but I was never encouraged at school. One night I was driving home and saw this billboard advertising courses at the university. There was a telephone number at the bottom, so I rang it. A long interview with a professor followed. When I told him I had no A levels or anything like that, he sent me away to write an essay."

That essay on the Suez crisis did the trick, and Mr Pivaro was admitted to Salford on the three-year degree course. He admits to being "a dreadful student" first time round who "failed to utilise all the opportunities at Rada". But he has changed, confirms a Salford University spokeswoman:"His tutors say he is an excellent student, and in real life he is not a bit like the devious character he plays on television."

Mr Pivaro is not the first to juggle "The Street" with academia. Actor David Neilson, who plays Roy Cropper, has studied for an Open University degree between rehearsals.

Actress Emma Atkins, star of another soap, Emmerdale , knows how difficult it is to switch from screen to study. She succeeded, however, in graduating last summer with first-class honours in performing arts while appearing in the series.

Ms Atkins, who is 25, was halfway through her final year at Salford when she won the role of Charity Dingle. She said: "I was invited to audition for Emmerdale just before Christmas last year, and as soon as it was over I had to drive straight back to college because I had an essay to finish. I remember I was in the library when my agent rang to say they liked me and wanted a screen test.

"It was fantastic when I heard I'd got the part, but I immediately worried that I'd be kicked off my course. But the university was fantastic and, although it was really hard to memorise lines and catch up on all the lecture notes, I'm so glad I didn't throw my degree down the pan."

Craig Brown, manager of Scotland's national football team, took an OU degree so people would not consider him an "ignorant acrobat". Mr Brown, a former professional footballer, was lecturing at Craigie College of Education when a course in reading development caught his eye.

"The undoubted benefit was an enhancement of my personal development in terms of my job. It also gave me a modicum of academic respectability because the PE specialist was considered by some to be an ignorant acrobat. The distance-learning format proved to be an expedient and informative way of learning. Given time, in the future I may as a hobby return to the OU."

The challenge of reading for a degree while earning a living in professional sport leaves Newcastle United goalkeeper Steve Harper exhausted but exhilarated. Having completed his first year in social sciences with the OU, he has five years to go to graduation.

"It isn't easy, but it is so worth while," said Mr Harper, who turned down a place at Liverpool John Moores University when he was offered a professional football contract at the age of 18.

"I never got around to the university thing and just felt at the age of 25 years I'd give it a go."

Another goalkeeper, Espen Baardsen of Watford FC, is also studying with the OU on a six-year BSc degree in social sciences. The Norwegian international sets aside Fridays before a match for study. On the weekends when Watford plays away from home, he reads on the bus to the game.

He said: "Most of the other players don't know about my degree." Likewise, he believes, neither his tutor nor any fellow students at summer school realise he is a professional footballer.

Celebrity OU alumni include actors Sheila Hancock, Connie Booth, who co-wrote and starred in Fawlty Towers , and Julie Christie, who started an OU degree in history and politics a few years ago. Opera singer Gillian Knight has completed her BA, as has crime writer Lesley Glaister.

The hall of fame looks likely to expand at many institutions as mature students from all walks of life seek fulfilment in learning.

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