THE rector of Edinburgh University has called on the

institution to review its policy of honouring foreign politicians, claiming it faced embarrassment over its award to Robert Mugabe, the president of Zimbabwe.

Robin Harper said the university had been hasty in 1984 in handing Mr Mugabe - whom he described as a ''nasty tyrant'' - an honorary doctorate.

Mr Harper, the Green MSP, has been a firm critic of Mr Mugabe but until now has limited his comments to welcoming discussion of rescinding the honorary degree.

His term as rector ends in March and he has indicated he will not run for re-election.

The criticism comes as arguments continue over the England cricket team's decision to fulfil its world cup fixture with Zimbabwe in Harare next month. The government has recommended the team boycotts the country in protest at the regime.

A wave of violence has swept the country as Mr Mugabe pursues his land-grab policy, confiscating farms from white Zimbabweans.

More than six million of his people now face starvation in a famine stretching across Southern Africa, and aid agencies have accused supporters of the ruling Zanu-PF party of denying food to opponents.

However, two decades ago Mr Mugabe was honoured by Edinburgh University for his contribution to education in Zimbabwe and his role in bringing the country to independence. Students have been lobbying the university to repeal his honorary doctorate, although there is no mechanism for revoking awards.

Mr Harper said: ''Perhaps the answer is not to award honorary degrees to politicians, particularly those in foreign countries, until they have run their course. Maybe the end of a presidency is the time for an honour to be bestowed and not simply when a person is elected. There is always an element of caution because you don't know how people will use their power.

''I believe Edinburgh University was precipitous in honouring him so early in his tenure.''

However, Mr Harper said that a mechanism for withdrawing honours, once awarded, would not be the answer.

''That would be mean-

minded and it could be open to all sorts of abuse. It would be difficult to draw up a list of criteria that would apply,'' he said.

''Perhaps a motion by students is enough in itself as a mark of severe criticism of a regime. It's just as much as can be done.''

He said he would be against retrospective university legislation which would strip people of degrees originally awarded in good faith.

''In this case, that faith has been thoroughly broken,'' said Mr Harper, who added: ''The policy of honorary degrees for foreign politicians deserves a revisit, looking at the criteria and the point at which an honour should be bestowed.''

Jonathan Meenagh, students' association president, said the Mugabe case highlighted the case for reviewing the policy. He said: ''Mr Harper has a point. You don't know what an honorary graduate is going to do - not just politicians, scientist could carry out controversial and unethical research.''

Mr Meenagh said there was a motion coming before the students' representative council requesting that university heads look at the whole concept of handing out honorary degrees.

''In this case, it's done and dusted, but I hope the university will consider the issue.''

The university, which said it supported the UK government's line on the Mugabe issue, said yesterday that the degree was awarded ''on the merits of the case at the time''.

A spokesman added: ''The University of Edinburgh has a concern that the withdrawal of such a degree might rebound on any in the country associated with the university - our graduates in Zimbabwe and also the Edinburgh graduates of many nationalities who work all over the world, including Zimbabwe.''

He added that it had no procedures for withdrawing such degrees. He said: ''We do not feel that embarking on a time-consuming, lengthy process of change to provide us with a mechanism for this is the best use of resources.''

controversial AWARDS

Harry Truman: The US president who ordered the use of nuclear weapons against Japan faced a furious protest in 1957 when he was honoured by Oxford University.

Sir Peter Swinnerton-Dyer, a former chairman of the University Grants Committee, in 1991 was conferred with one of Aberdeen University's most controversial honorary awards. Some held him responsible, through UGC swingeing cuts, for the loss of more than 130 jobs there.

George Younger, former Scottish secretary, faced a walkout by a group of Glasgow University students at a ceremony in 1992 to award

an honorary degree of doctor of laws. The problem appeared to be that he was a ''high


Kenneth Clarke, while Tory chancellor, faced action in 1996 by lecturers when Nottingham Trent University awarded him an honorary degree. They blamed him for education cuts.