When is a Professor a Professor: Does the routine use of honorifics reduce confidence in public life?

By Dr Minh Alexander retired consultant psychiatrist 13 March 2023

There has been disquiet and rumbling controversy for some years about the fashion for those who do not have substantive chairs to style themselves as “professors” in everyday life.

Universities award the title of “Visiting professor” and “Honorary professor” to substantive professors from other universities as part of academic collaborations, as a legitimate convention.

However, “Visiting” and “honorary titles” may be bestowed on those who do not have substantive chairs, for a number of reasons. For example, some may be awarded honorary professorships in recognition of achievements in public life or more controversially, it has been suggested that such awards may be made to flatter or as a quid pro quo to the powerful or those who control the purchase of services from universities. Such as senior NHS managers.

“There is a real danger this could be seen as “grace and favor” or “quid pro quo” when an honorary award is made to someone in a senior position in an organisation that provides a service to, or is a “customer” of, the awarding university.”

Then there is the moot issue of whether such titles are misused by some, unwittingly or intentionally in some cases to polish their CV and personal presentation.

Some institutions give guidance on how honorary titles should not be used in everyday life or at least not in a confusing way.

A number of compelling arguments against the practice of using honorary and visiting titles in everyday life are made in this paper, especially when the word “honorary” or “visiting” is omitted:

Misunderstanding or misrepresentation? The use and misuse of the professorial title in nursing

Substantive academics who have earned their titles understandably object to the practice.

In an attempt to identify bona fide, substantive nursing professors, the RCN has published a list of the official UK nursing professoriat.

Perhaps it is time that medical institutions take a leaf out of this book.

Examples of honorary titles used in everyday life

There are many examples of individuals who style themselves as professors on the basis of apparently non-substantive posts. Here are three examples:

  1. David Rosser former medical director and then CEO of University Hospitals Birmingham NHS Foundation Trust, now purportedly regional strategic director of digital health and care.

He styled himself as “Professor”. This is how he was represented on the UHB trust website:

This was his twitter account:

His trust University Hospitals Birmingham NHS Foundation Trust disclosed that this was based on an honorary professorship.

The awarding body was the University of Birmingham.

The University was asked if it condones his use of the title in day-to-day life. It has not yet replied.

2. Steve Field GP and former Chief Inspector of primary care Care Quality Commission, then Chair of Royal Wolverhampton NHS trust and later also Chair of Walsall Healthcare NHS Trust.

Field styles himself as “Professor”

A biog about Field, announcing his appointment to the organisation Policy Connect, stated that he held two honorary professorships at University of Warwick and University of Birmingham:

3. Mike Bewick GP and former Deputy Medical Director NHS England, who set up a private consultancy firm IQ4U Consultants Ltd after leaving NHS England, styles himself as “Professor” on  his current LinkedIn profile.

Mike Bewick is of course currently in the public eye as he has been hired to conduct reviews on University Hospitals Birmingham NHS Foundation Trust after a scandal, exposed by BBC Newsnight.

He is represented on reports by his company IQ4U Consultants Ltd as “Professor Mike Bewick”.

For example, this is the front cover from the IQ4U report on the A&E deaths at Russells Halls hospital:

Similarly, the front page of the IQ4U report on the cardiac surgery controversy at St. Georges cites one of the authors as “Professor Mike Bewick”:

Mike Bewick is listed as an honorary professor at UCLAN.

An old CV is found posted online which indicated that he was an honorary professor at Kent.

I asked Mike Bewick about his use of the title “professor”.

He advised:

“I hold an honorary chair at UCLan only not a substantial professional one”.

I asked him why he used the title of “professor” in day-to-day life if it was an honorary title.

I have not yet received a response.

NHS England, the ICB, Preet Gill MP and Richard Burden Chair of Healthwatch (the latter two had agreed to chair and be part of external reference group on the conduct of Bewick’s reviews on UHB) all refer to Bewick as “professor”.

No doubt the title confers confidence in some people’s eyes.

But is it right that this title is used?

UCLAN, the body which awarded the honorary professorship to Bewick, says that it would not condone the day-to-day use of an honorary title.

See the UCLAN letter of 7 March 2023, copied below:

7 March 2023          

Ref:      FOI 2940


I am writing in response to your request for information regarding honorary titles (Ref FOI 2940).

The information you requested is as follows:

Does the University condone the day-to-day use of honorary titles such as “Doctor” outside of University business?

No, the University does not condone this use of honorary titles.

 If we became aware that the recipient of an honorary doctorate was styling themselves as “Doctor” inappropriately, we would inform them that this was not condoned.

If you are unhappy with the way we have handled your request for information, you are entitled to ask for an internal review; however, you must do so within 40 working days of the date of this response. Any internal review will be carried out by a senior member of staff who was not involved with your original request. To ask for an internal review, contact DPFOIA@uclan.ac.uk in the first instance.

If you are unhappy with the outcome of any internal review, you are entitled to complain to the Information Commissioner. To do so, contact:

Information Commissioner’s Office

Wycliffe House

Water Lane





01625 545 745

There are many, many more examples of individuals who use honorary titles in the NHS.

I note that coinciding with enquiries to universities, two of the three examples given above have stopped styling themselves as professors in their twitter accounts.

Letter to the Secretary of State requesting policy review and better culture

I have written to the Secretary of State about regularising policy in the NHS on the use of honorific titles, for better culture.


Steve Barclay

Secretary of State for Health

13 March 2023

Dear Professor Doctor Barclay,

Use of honorary titles in everyday life in the NHS

Forgive my unconventional address but I write on the use of honorary titles in everyday life in the NHS, which in the main, universities do not condone.

Many senior NHS managers have been using honorary titles in a confusing and perhaps misleading way to represent themselves as professors and doctors etc when they hold only honorary titles.

“Dr” Paula Vasco-Knight the convicted fraudster was one of the most prominent examples.

Some have raised questions about whether or not academic institutions have made these awards to flatter the powerful who hold budgets that universities wish to access.

Misunderstanding or misrepresentation? The use and misuse of the professorial title in nursing

When is a Professor a Professor: Does the routine use of honorifics reduce confidence in public life?

I would be very grateful if you address this policy issue and ensure that these matters are regularised, to set a better example on probity and moderation.

Many thanks and best wishes

Yours sincerely,

Dr Minh Alexander

Cc Amanda Pritchard CEO NHS England

Steve Brine Chair of Health and Social Care Committee

One thought on “When is a Professor a Professor: Does the routine use of honorifics reduce confidence in public life?

  1. I find it quite sad when employees appear to have so little confidence in their achievements that they feel compelled to embellish their occupational descriptions.
    It reminds me of those who feel socially disadvantaged and thus claim kinship with royalty even as they shuffle along the pavements with worn-out shoes and tattered clothing.
    Btw, the Great Dane pic is acceptable – demonstrating that there is hope for humanity!


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