New Zealand universities have spent more than $250,000
dishing out honorary degrees to celebrities and visiting
dignitaries, a Herald investigation into the eight
institutions has found.
It's enough to fund the first year of a medicine, teaching or
law degree for 50 students.
Critics in the UK have labelled the practice of awarding the
degrees a publicity stunt and say they overshadow the
achievements of graduating students, but politicians in this
country support the practice.
As the country's next leaders look forward to donning their
robes at graduation after years of study, the ceremonies will
also be used by the country's eight universities to showcase
some of the famous faces they have chosen to honour with
Over the past 10 years, thousands has been spent on travel,
accommodation, hospitality, regalia and printing of
Recipients have included the Topp Twins, All Black captain
Richie McCaw, Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson, his
screenplay writer partner Fran Walsh, musical brothers Neil
and Tim Finn, Whale Rider author Witi Ihimaera, Oscar-winning
Weta special effects master Richard Taylor, Olympic gold
medallist Peter Snell and former Prime Ministers Jim Bolger
and Helen Clark.
The late author Margaret Mahy, singer Sir Howard Morrison,
mountaineer Sir Edmund Hillary and former All Black captain
Sir Wilson Whineray have also received them. Visiting heads
of state, former Irish President Mary McAleese and Samoan
Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sa'ilele Malielegaoi were also
Soprano Dame Kiri Te Kanawa is a serial collector with
honorary degrees from the Auckland, Victoria and Waikato
universities as well as several from overseas institutions
including Oxford, Cambridge, Nottingham, Chicago, Bath,
Dundee, Durham, Nottingham, Sunderland and Warwick.
Some of the recipients fund courses at the universities they
have received degrees from, such as Owen Glenn, who in 2002
donated $7.5 million to the University of Auckland for the
development of the business school.
Singaporean businessman Lee Seng Tee, who has funded a
lecture series in Antarctic studies at Victoria University,
was made a Doctor of Literature by the institution. And Sir
Eion Edgar funded the University of Otago Edgar Centre for
Diabetes and Obesity Research in 2003, the same year he was
made a Doctor of Law there.
World Cup-winning former All Blacks coach Sir Graham Henry
was awarded an honorary doctorate in education from the
University of Canterbury last month. But the costs are not
included in the Herald investigation as a request for
information from New Zealand's eight tertiary institutions
was made beforehand.
Some universities conferred the degrees at their main student
graduation, while others held separate ceremonies. Two
universities refused to give full costs, but using the
information that was provided, at least $259,279.70 was
The University of Auckland was the biggest spender with about
$94,500 used for ceremonies for 27 people. Grant Wills,
executive officer for the office of the vice-chancellor,
defended the cost.
"The benefits the university typically receives from an
honorary degree recipient over the years they contribute to
the university far outweighs the comparatively minimal costs
of their ceremony.
"A recipient of our honorary doctorate must have had an
intimate association with the university, or be academically
distinguished, or have shown a strong interest in the
wellbeing of the university by benefactions or other means of
"An exception to these criteria arises when a person of
international repute is visiting the university in an
official capacity. Such persons have included visiting heads
of state and, by their visit, they have honoured the
university in a very public way."
Separate ceremonies were held as it was "too impersonal" to
group them with normal graduation ceremonies, which drove up
the costs, he said.
"Our honorary graduates are exceptional people. They do not
overshadow graduates' achievements, rather they complement
and support the achievements of our graduates.
"Most recipients of an honorary degree will have spent many
years contributing to the university - sometimes three or
more times the period a typical undergraduate will spend
"Some, but by no means a majority, will also have contributed
financially to the university. Their donations may have
provided new facilities for students, or funded equipment
which has extended students' skills. They may have
contributed to the funding of a new position which will help
future students learn new skills or expand into totally new
Waikato University was also a big spender with at least
$67,075. But the figure provided only represented costs for
six degrees which were given out at ceremonies off campus
after 2008. There were a further 33 awarded that were not
The most expensive ceremony was held in Tauranga for former
Port of Tauranga chief executive Jon Mayson at $23,290.
Victoria University gave out the most honorary degrees with
63, and spent $56,834, which helped pay for flights for seven
dignitaries coming from either Canada, the US or Australia.
Just over $16,000 was spent flying Lower Hutt-born lawyer and
author Peter Hogg from Canada, where he now works.
Massey University was the only institution which refused to
give any costs.
A spokesman for Tertiary Education Minister Steven Joyce said
that in 2011 the total revenue of New Zealand's universities
was $3.2 billion. The $250,000 over 10 years was about
$25,000 a year which equated to 0.00078 per cent of the
nationwide annual turnover.
"Universities worldwide have long given out honorary degrees
as their way of recognising outstanding achievements by
"Universities are autonomous and responsible for managing
their own affairs, including operational costs. Like all
other businesses in the current climate, universities need to
look closely at their costs and expenditure, and be able to
justify their spending."
David Clendon, the Green Party spokesman for tertiary
education, said he was supportive of honorary degrees but had
heard of resentment when a recipient had added the honorific
Dr to their name, which was "inappropriate for such an
award", he said.
"The question of whether they are conferred at graduation
ceremonies or at a stand-alone function again is a bit
dependent on context - generally speaking it makes sense to
add these to a general graduation ceremony. But I have on
occasion seen them awarded at times that recognises a
milestone in the recipients's life - retirement, moving to a
new role, their geographic location, i.e. living somewhere or
being recognised by a community where there is no tertiary
"I presume that the cost of these awards is covered by a
specific budget line, the appropriateness of the level of
spend is really a matter for each university, its governing
body and stakeholders to consider."
Costs: About $94,500
Recipients include: Helen Clark, Owen Glenn, Dame Kiri Te
Costs: $67,075+ (only calculated six ceremonies)
Recipients include: The Topp Twins, Neil and Tim Finn, Sir
Edmund Hillary, Sir Howard Morrison, Sir Wilson Whineray,
Dame Kiri Te Kanawa
Recipients include: Witi Ihimaera, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa,
Samoan Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sa'ilele Malielegaoi
Recipients include: Richie McCaw, Sir Bob Charles, Sir Wilson
Whineray, Allan Hubbard
Recipients include: Former Irish President Mary McAleese,
Auckland University of Technology
Costs: About $9100
Recipients include: Sir Don McKinnon, Michael Moore
University of Canterbury
Costs: $480 for calligraphy (refused to give other
Recipients include: Michael Moore
Recipients include: Sir Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, Sir
Richard Taylor, Sir Peter Snell, Jim Bolger
- By Alanah Eriksen of the New Zealand Herald