THE University of the Witwatersrand is one of SA's largest and oldest academic institutions. According to its strategic planning division, at the end of last year there were about 1300 academic staff, 2000 administrative staff and nearly 30000 students, with 9000 of these being postgraduates.

There is no doubt that Wits has pockets of excellence, and many talented academics who are players on the global stage. However, this excellence is being overwhelmed and dragged down by inefficient bureaucracy in its administrative processes.

There are more administrative staff than academic staff, and as one academic said: "It is impossible to get anything done."

David Dickinson, president of the Academic Staff Association of Wits University - which has more than 700 members and is threatening to strike, said: "Between 2007 and last year, we fell more than 100 places in the QS World University Rankings.. A significant problem is that the most important part of the university has been forgotten: its employees."

The university is ranked second in the country, after the University of Cape Town, but scraped into the top 400 in the world at 399th on the QS World University rankings for last year.

Another academic, who wished to remain anonymous, said they personally had to process student applications. "Otherwise you'll wait forever and nothing will be done," he said.

The pervasive air is one of frustration in which people - students and academics - are stymied by this bureaucracy.

Some schools are lucky: they have captured international attention - such as palaeosciences - and consequently funding and institutional will. But others are struggling, and claim they receive little support from the executive, in financial or human resources.

A number of issues feed into academia's struggle to hold on to the students it trains. "Research will never be a brilliantly paid career," said Rob Drennan, director for research development at Wits. "Many graduates want to get a high-paying salary to support more siblings going through university. Research doesn't always seem to be an attractive option ."

This means that supervision loads are daunting and lecturing and marking are often prioritised over research.

Deputy vice-chancellor Rob Moore said: "There is no link between Wits' drop in the rankings and Wits' administrative processes. Indeed, the ranking systems related to universities are new, emergent and are continuously evolving. They are also obscure and flawed."

Belinda Bozzoli, vice-chancellor for research, said: "The number of academics with a National Research Foundation (NRF) rating nearly doubled, and Wits increased its research output by almost 40%, won no fewer than 19 new (research) chairs from the NRF chairs programme; and doubled its annual income from R2bn to R4bn - 50% of which is generated by outside funding."

But while academics are excited by their work and research, they are overburdened by research, postgraduate supervision and undergraduate lecturing, and constantly frustrated by the bureaucracy of the university.