There is need to control honorary degrees in Tanzania

What you need to know:

  • In 2015, The New York Times claimed that 3,300 fake universities sold certificates at all levels around the world. Given what is happening in Africa today, it looks like a sizable number of those institutions are targeting Africans.

Having a doctorate is a big deal. It shows that the holder has reached the pinnacle of academic achievement in his field. It is the result of years of hard work, dedication, and research, demonstrated through the submission of a dissertation and publications in peer-reviewed journals.

In the past 70 years, the number of universities worldwide has increased rapidly from about 2,000 to over 25,000 today. That has led to significant demand for PhDs around the world. Today, there are 5.5 million individuals with PhDs who are mostly involved in academic and research work. Despite the increase, the title ‘doctor’ still commands immense respect in many societies.

However, with the prestige that comes with the genuine, came the shortcuts that accompany the fakery. Many unscrupulous individuals decided to acquire the honour without paying the cost. That has resulted in a proliferation of dubious honorary doctorates, particularly in Africa.

In Tanzania, many people have become beneficiaries of such honours lately. Politicians such as Joseph Musukuma, Abdul-Aziz Abood, Japhet Hasunga, and Hamisi Shaban Taletale have all received honorary doctorates, leading to a public outcry as photos of their PhD regalia circulated on social media.

“I have obtained my PhD in Politics and Leadership,” announced the remarkably proud Musukuma, an MP, “I hope that one day (other MPs who have doctorates) will allow me to offer a lecture so that they can hear what I have to say because I am also a doctor.”

Those were bold words indeed, especially coming from a man with only a primary school education. Nonetheless, Musukuma’s words revealed a shocking misunderstanding about the nature of honorary degrees and the institutions that confer them.

To clarify, honorary doctorates are awards given by recognized universities to individuals who have made remarkable contributions to their fields or society. Unlike traditional doctorates, these degrees are awarded purely as an honour and do not require the completion of coursework or research. Thus, they are not equivalent to earned doctorates.

It is crucial to note that only established universities can confer honorary doctorates. This means that the numerous unaccredited “diploma mills” do not count. Additionally, these degrees are offered as tokens of appreciation and are not obtained by paying any fees.

Moreover, globally, the accepted convention is that those who receive honorary doctorates do not use the title ‘Dr’ before their names. That flies in the face of general practice in Tanzania, where the prefix ‘Dr’ is boldly brandished in front of people’s names.

This was seen when the University of Dar es Salaam awarded President Samia Suluhu Hassan an honorary doctorate last year. While the decision raised many eyebrows, no one can question UDSM’s power to award such a degree. Yet, to my astonishment, nearly all media outlets started referring to the president as “Dr Samia Suluhu Hassan” the very next day. That is the thin end of the wedge.

Honorary degrees are becoming a concerning trend, not just among politicians, but also among church leaders. Years ago, Mwidimi Ndosi and Cleopa John wrote an article discussing the rise of honorary degrees being awarded to church leaders in Tanzania.

The article revealed that more than 50 honorary degrees were handed out to ministers ‘just in the past year’. ‘These days,’ the authors wrote, ‘if you go to any large Pentecostal congregation, you are likely to hear their pastor being introduced as ‘doctor’ so and so. An almost taboo but important question to ask is, who conferred these doctorates?’ Indeed, who is conferring these doctorates?

In 2015, The New York Times claimed that 3,300 fake universities sold certificates at all levels around the world. Given what is happening in Africa today, it looks like a sizable number of those institutions are targeting Africans.

What we are observing is the lowering of the value of higher education, and if we entertain that, we will breed a generation of mediocrity that will be the end of the world as we know it. Degrees are not commodities to be bought, they are trophies to be earned. We, therefore, need to arrest the current situation immediately.

I think the Tanzania Commission for Universities (TCU) should take the lead in tackling this challenge.

For a starter, since the honorary doctorate craze is all about titles, TCU should demand that no one be called a ‘doctor’ on the basis of honorary doctorates.

To safeguard academic integrity, TCU should advise its affiliated universities to refrain from awarding honorary degrees to politicians while they hold office.

The practice of universities rushing to grant honorary degrees to those in power, without considering the consequences for academic independence, needs to be reversed.

Finally, the media needs to play its part too. Until now, many outlets have played the sycophantic tune by calling recipients of these degrees, dubious or not, doctors. Journalists know better – and they should be ashamed of themselves! How can we stop this trend from blooming if we continue to give people the false adulation they crave?

Earning a PhD is a worthy accomplishment deserving of great respect. If politicians and ministers desire the prestige that comes with being called “doctor,” they must put in the hard work to earn it. Leaders lead - being seen to take shortcuts or avoid challenges is the antithesis of leadership.