Why I... believe in rewarding brilliance

September 28, 2001

Imagine the Queen, summoning her barge, sailing down the Thames to the Tower, inspecting the crown jewels and saying to the warden:

"I don't like them, throw them in the river." Imagine the vice-chancellor of the University of London, bounding up the grand staircase in Senate House, inspecting the scholastic ornaments at his university and telling his minions: "Smash them." Equally improbable scenarios?

The University of Bologna was founded in the 11th century, Paris in the 12th, but Londoners were too busy making money. However, in 1825 the poet Thomas Campbell urged the foundation of a great London University. Opposition from Oxford arose: the Duke of Wellington declaring that the award of arts degrees by a university of London would "be a fraud committed upon the public".

Lord Melbourne produced a brilliant solution: London colleges might teach, but the University of London would be separate and responsible for examining academic degrees. Thus in 1836, King William IV awarded a charter to the university that conveyed the right to award the degrees of Doctor of Laws (LLD) and Medicine (MD) to eminent men in their fields, and in 1858 also Literature (DLit), Science (DSc), and Music (DMus).

These higher doctorates are of ancient origin - recipients include Samuel Johnson and Michael Faraday - and they have provided formal recognition of sustained academic excellence. On the Continent, universities take a huge pride in their doctors: for example, at the medieval Portuguese university at Coimbra, the Hall of Doctors has stone walls hung with large oil portraits of black-cloaked scholars.

Recently, the renowned chemist Sir Aaron Klug said: "Scientists wish to receive credit, just as do writers and inventors." Everyone knows university staff do not need to be paid much, but do they need ornaments?

In 1999, the University of London's vice-chancellor chaired a committee to review higher doctorates. To the astonishment of many, the committee decided to flout tradition and abolish its doctorates. A bizarre feature of the matter was the negligence of the Convocation of the University of London in failing to defend time-honoured practice.

The university document expresses the pious hope that it is providing a lead in this action. One can imagine the gusts of laughter this self-mutilation will provoke at Universities UK and at the Sorbonne.

University life is punctuated with pomp. Founder's and commencement days, meeting royalty, presenting degrees, examining abroad, require scholars to wear robes. The gowns and hoods represent ancient colours distinguishing the subject. The London degrees entail long scarlet robes with open silk sleeves of sarum red (DD), blue (LLD), russet brown (DLit), watered white (DMus) and gold (DSc). In future, London academics will be denied this brilliant spectacle. Alas, the vice-chancellor has written that "to indulge academics in an opportunity to don strange costume and engage in harmless pageantry would risk Ruritanian vacuity".

The final date for entry for a doctoral examination is September 30 2001. But even now, academics are being recruited by the colleges without being informed that their university has demoted itself into a second-class status. Will they stay when their illusions are shattered?

It is possible, to escape the vice-chancellor's negativity, that the colleges will withdraw from the federation to form independent universities and thus be free to reward successful research appropriately.

The founders insisted in the early charters that the office of vice-chancellor be restricted to an annual term. How wise they were.

Of course, some, with lofty disdain, will declare that the pursuit of truth is its own sufficient reward. But others, those interested in the glittering prizes, will avoid the University of London.

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