The Natural Resources Institute looks set to be taken over by a group of universities led by Greenwich.
The Overseas Development Administration, which owns the NRI, announced this week that the Greenwich consortium had reached "preferred bidder status". The consortium, which includes Wye College (the agricultural centre of the University of London) Imperial College and Edinburgh University, has therefore moved ahead of its only remaining rival, Serco International with the University of Wales.
Controversy has surrounded the sale of the NRI because of fears that once it left the ODA it would change its purpose, which is to support the British aid programme. The institute has also undergone controversial cuts and restructuring.
However, the staff's unions, which opposed the sale, said that the Greenwich consortium would be the "least bad" option because the NRI would be in the university, rather than the private, sector.
David Fussey, vice chancellor of Greenwich University, said: "The ODA has seen that there's a lot of potential for added value by the involvement of these four universities who have huge commitment to natural resources internationally worldwide. The academic network within the consortium was something to be put forward as a major advantage."
Fiona Sloman, a national officer of the Institution of Professional Managers and Specialists, said that Greenwich had given an undertaking that any profits made by the NRI would go into a trust which would then "go straight back into the institute".
Dr Fussey said: "The whole thing is not yet over and done with. We have an intense period of negotiations". He said that staff would initially be transferred to Greenwich University.