Accounting error threatens jobs

June 22, 2001

A discrepancy in accounting systems has threatened the jobs of nearly half the staff at the University of Greenwich's Natural Resources Institute.

Up to 130 of the institute's 280 staff face redundancy after an accounting error led to a £9 million shortfall. These include 110 scientists, largely from the natural resources management and agricultural resources departments, and 20 admin and technical staff.

The NRI was taken over by Greenwich in 1996 after it was privatised by the Overseas Development Agency.

The key problem was that the NRI was accounting for profits during the course of projects rather than after they were finished.

Acting director Tony Clayton explained: "Many projects will last three to four years and cross over the end of financial years. The NRI was taking the profits too early, with the result that everything was being overvalued."

This became significant, he said, when the volume of projects - about 500 a year - was taken into account. In 1999-2000 alone, it led to a £5 million shortfall.

He said there was no question of fraud and that the mistake was not an easy one to spot without a full-scale investigation.

Mr Clayton said the errors had also masked a drop in the level of work coming into the NRI. The nature of development work had changed, he said, adding: "One of the things NRI has not done is to move and change with the times."

Several members of staff had offered to go part time in order to continue their work, he said.

Fiona Sloman, of the Institution of Professionals, Managers and Specialists, the trade union to which the threatened members of staff belong, said talks were continuing with the university. Agreement over the final number of redundancies is expected by the end of July.

Mr Clayton takes over from John Perfect, who has retired.

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