Moral dilemma?

June 9, 1995

John Bird speculates on the transfer fees frenzy. Eric Cantona transferred from Manchester United to Chelsea for Pounds 5 million. His goals (14) and the points they earned (23) are debited to United and credited to Chelsea. Chelsea now head the Premier league and United are now in 18th place, only 5 points above the relegation places.

Press Release: Anthony Giddens transferred from Cambridge University to the University of Microtown. All his publications and research has been debited to Cambridge and credited to Microtown. Cambridge is now 33 in the research ranking for sociology, whereas Microtown is now joint first.

What is the difference between these two? The first does not happen and is unthinkably incoherent. The latter does happen and is equally incoherent. And yet. . . if there is logic in the second, then the same logic ought to apply to the first.

If, in the latter, an academic can produce books and papers while paid for by her/his university, and then move to another university and take with him/her all the kudos and ranking points; then why does the Football League not use the same system?

The answer: because it is silly and also unfair. It does not even serve as a measure of the research ethos of the receiving institution. What happens in a university is that people are often relieved of teaching in order to carry out research; their colleagues take an extra burden of teaching to this end. They produce lots of creditworthy work.

And then they are transferred and/or head-hunted. They want to take the new job but the net effect is that their former host loses out. The receiving institution then rises in the research ranking through doing absolutely nothing beyond paying for the transfer.

Scenario for a television show set in an employment agency for high-flying academics: Professor Wimble has been head-hunted by Microtown. The transfer fee is Pounds 10 million with a signing-on fee of Pounds 1 million in share options. Fees to the agency (at 20 per cent) are Pounds 2 million.

But wait, Macrotown University is offering more! What is the professor to do? Is this a moral dilemma? Is it an immoral dilemma? See next week's exciting episode.

In summary: does anyone understand the system? Does anyone detect some underlying rationality?

John Bird is a lecturer in the department of sociology, University of the West of England.

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