Cambridge in chaos as Capsa fails to add up

September 15, 2000

Cambridge University could soon "grind to a halt" because of major problems with its new Pounds 8 million accounts system, according to angry staff. Accounts managers are warning of a "grave risk" to teaching and research.

Staff are reporting a "maddening tidal wave of network faults" and more fundamental problems with Capsa - an online accounting system from Oracle Financials. Access to research grants, payment of salaries, expenses and invoices and purchasing functions are all caught up.

John Turner, the accounts manager in the department of applied maths, said in an internal memo that problems were at crisis level. "Certain optimists may say that the problems with Capsa are just teething troubles," he said. "ButI parts of the university are already virtually at a halt. I believe things will just get worse. In my opinion the university must accept that Capsa is a failure and reinstate the old system immediately."

The complaints are extensive:

* Jackie Jenkins, the manager of the Wolfson Brain Imaging Centre at Addenbrookes Hospital, said that because of software problems and slow processing, it had taken her accounts clerk three hours to pay a Pounds 3.75 invoice. "We are only a small department, but I have a stack of invoices to be paid and there are not enough hours in his contract to keep up," she said. "Judging by the number of emails going back and forth, this has been an ill-judged approach to the introduction of a multimillion-pound system into one of the UK's premier universities"

* Howard Jones, the academic secretary of the chemistry department said:

"No payments can be made from research grants at present." He warned that his department could be disconnected by British Telecom for non-payment of invoices

* An administrative officer in the faculty of divinity said that he had told his secretaries not to use the system for the present, as it was freezing the faculty's machines

* The administrator at the Isaac Newton Institute said they had had serious problems paying international visitors their subsistence and travel costs

* It is understood that all PhD students, all college research fellows and all postdocs paid directly by sponsors (outside the payroll) are outside the system.

Psychologist Robert Fishwick said that the magnitude of the problems presented "a grave risk to academic departments' ability to fulfil their teaching and research duties effectively. I suspect that we need to turn Capsa off now before it is too late for the present year."

Staff laid the blame firmly at the hands of Cambridge's management, not Oracle. Most believed that Cambridge had given an inadequate specification to Oracle or had chosen an inappropriate package, designed for more specialised corporate purchasing organisations rather than a highly decentralised university.

But most agreed that the university had not provided enough training and that there was inadequate support. One academic said that there was a two-day wait for a response from the help desk.

A university spokeswoman said: "Universities have to have excellent accounting systems and, with a turnover of about Pounds 350 million a year, it is essential that Cambridge has a modern computerised system that can cope with a large volume of transactions.

"The new system has been in place for six weeks, and there have been some initial performance problems that we are working hard to straighten out. Some teething problems were to be expected since the previous accounting system was based on a 30-year-old design. We are confident that the new system, when bedded in, will bring enormous benefits to the university."

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