Should your cat get a degree?

Oliver was a handsome four-year-old black cat who lived in Wales in the late 1960s. He belonged to Michael Greenhalgh, an enterprising television cameraman and journalist who worked for Television Wales. They lived near Newport, Oliver holding the fort while Michael divided his time between location work and the television studios in Cardiff and Bristol. Since its foundation in 1958, Television Wales had become a much-loved part of life in Wales and the West of England. Tellywelly, as it was affectionately known by locals, was a good employer. Many were the evenings Michael would return home and regale Oliver with entertaining stories of how he’d spent the day filming Harry Secombe, Clive Dunn or John Betjeman. It was a good life. However, in common with many journalists, Michael was not one to rest on his laurels. A restless and inquisitive spirit, he was ever on the lookout for an interesting new story.

Michael had noticed, over the years, an increasing number of advertisements in local and national newspapers offering readers the chance to apply for professional qualifications, memberships or affiliations. Masters degrees, doctorates, fellowships, certificates of proficiency, even ordination in holy orders: all these and more were on offer to applicants willing to fill in the simple application forms and send them off together with the required enrolment fee. Among the many institutions that caught his eye was the English Association of Estate Agents and Valuers, a respectable-sounding set-up with an address in Charles St, Newport. The Association was, it said, seeking to expand its fellowship and would warmly welcome applications from suitably qualified or experienced professionals. Michael wrote to the secretary of the Association, a Mr Lloyd Harris, requesting a prospectus. The Association’s requirements were simple enough. The applicant should give details of his work experience together with the names and addresses of two professional referees. There was, in addition, a one-off fellowship subscription of 11 guineas, a fairly tidy sum in 1967, the equivalent of about £500 today. Michael filled out the form using Oliver’s name, describing him as ‘Oliver Greenhalgh’, a ‘rodent operative’ with extensive experience in estate agency. Referees were listed and the application sent off with a cheque for 11 guineas.

Within a week or so, Oliver had received a handsome, embossed certificate of fellowship from the Association, printed on stiff parchment with gothic lettering and large, red corporate seal. The citation stated that he had been engaged in the work of an estate agent “for the period required by this Association” and that he had “satisfied the Council as to the thoroughness of his knowledge of estate agency and valuation subjects”. The Association had not seen fit to consult the referees. The story was a delightful coup for Television Wales and for Michael. Viewers were highly amused by the newly-qualified Oliver and delighted at the exposure of Lloyd Harris and his bogus Association. The Times sent someone to cover the story and Oliver was photographed sitting next to his certificate, gazing full-on at the camera with a curious mixture of bewilderment and defiance. The English Association of Estate Agents and Valuers was not, thundered The Times’ Estates Correspondent, one of the ‘main professional bodies concerned with estate agency’. It was not, he added, one of the ’10 societies supporting registration’, like, for example, the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors. As news of Oliver’s fellowship spread, other cats sought and obtained professional qualifications with the help of their owners. Over in America, a cat called Henrietta Goldacre qualified as a nutritionist. Another, Tobias F Schaeffer, applied for and received a certificate of proficiency in real estate appraisal. Dogs too joined the throng of four-pawed alumni. Chester Ludlow, a pug dog from Nebraska, was the first American dog to gain a ‘qualification’ in investment consultancy.

Back in England, after the initial comic tumult had died down, educators, legislators and lobbyists focused on the alarming number of scams that Oliver and Michael Greenhalgh had uncovered.  Finally, in 1973, the Labour MP Tom Cox introduced a Bill to regulate the awarding of degrees and other academic qualifications, using the Oliver Greenhalgh affair to illustrate the anarchy that now prevailed. Though the House of Commons was amused by Oliver’s story, they were increasingly dismayed at the seemingly endless catalogue of sharp practice revealed by Mr Cox. Myriad qualifications were available for a price, he said, in every discipline imaginable. Engineering, hypnotism, chiropody, medicine and religion were just a few of the areas in which qualifications could be readily bought. One William Duncan ran a set-up in Coventry that awarded medical degrees. Bruce Copen, whom Cox described as the ‘dean of deceits’, was the principal of the Sussex College of Technology, a pseudo-university that awarded worthless degrees in engineering. Then there was the colourful former car mechanic Charles Brearley, an ‘archbishop’ of the ‘Old Catholic Church’ and his partner, ‘Sir’ Sydney Lawrence, the ‘Duke of Neuillay’, ‘Knight of the Holy Grail’. Operating from what later turned out to be a slum in Sheffield, Brearley and Lawrence set up the Magnificus Universitatis Sheffieldensis and its sister foundation, the Collegium Academicum Ministeriale, selling holy orders, knighthoods of the Holy Grail and honorary degrees. In one notably elaborate scam, the archbishop and the duke hired a girls’ junior school in Kensington for the day, putting up a large placard over the entrance that read ‘London College of Applied Science’. There they awarded an honorary degree to a West German businessman who had paid them 30,000 marks. At a ceremony attended by company of Knights of the Holy Grail, he was handed a gorgeous diploma bound in blue leather. The degree ceremony was soberly and dutifully reported in the German press.

This foolishness might have seemed entertaining enough were it not for the alarming stories related about some of the ‘graduates’ of these schemes. Two Americans, Gerald Wood and Harold Baumgartner, obtained doctorates from Bruce Copen’s College of Technology. Wood subsequently became a director of the Colorado health department’s air pollution division and Baumgartner was appointed health planning officer in Denver. They were both forced to resign when details of their duff degrees became known. Inevitably, there was much speculation about what harm they may or may not have done if the origin of their doctorates had not come to light. There was a perceived need to protect two classes of victim: would-be ‘students’, desperate for qualifications and in danger of being duped and unwitting members of the public who might be seriously harmed by a bogusly qualified doctor, psychiatrist, priest or engineer. There were, potentially, two classes of transgressor to look out for too. One was obvious: the conman selling the degree. The other was less obvious but no less dangerous: the conman prepared to buy a degree or qualification in the full knowledge that it was worthless but with the intent of exploiting it nevertheless.

The exposure of bogus degree scams is only part of Oliver’s continuing legacy. The Oliver Greenhalgh affair also drew attention to another controversial aspect of the academic world, that of accreditation itself, the process by which an institution earns the right to award recognised and respected qualifications. An ‘accredited’ institution is one that is regulated and recognised by the authorities. It is widely assumed, because of their official status, that ‘accredited’ schools and universities are dedicated to the objective furtherance of knowledge rather than to the furtherance of a specific and tendentious agenda. This is not so. It is easy to set up a school or college run, say, along Christian or Islamic fundamentalist lines and to get accreditation and the right to award degrees. Is this right? Is it appropriate to teach Creationism or Jihad as being ‘right’ as part of a degree course? The debate could be endless…

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