In his special supplement on science in Latin America last year, Colin Macilwain1 rightly pointed out that scientists in most countries in the region complain about excessive bureaucracy and the time wasted by customs authorities in processing scientific equipment and materials for research.

But the major problem is in the enormous, inefficient bureaucratic system that reigns in almost all Latin American government institutions, not just in universities.

The system does not serve academic researchers: it creates all types of administrative bottlenecks. Most universities employ more administrative staff than teaching staff, using up a major part of the budget in unnecessary paperwork as well as for their salaries and bonuses.

The general administration of a university maintains four or five divisions with titles such as “purchasing”, “budget”, “finance”, “control” and so on, each section maintaining large numbers of staff, each with a specific role. If one person does not function, the rest stand still. The simplest transaction, for example payment of expenses to attend a scientific meeting, will probably not be completed until the event is over, unless the researcher personally tracks the file from desk to desk. Every four years, the authorities change and the new ones introduce their own systems, allegedly for efficiency but in fact to justify hiring new people. So a new bottleneck is created. This growth of administration can come only at the expense of research and teaching2.

The causes of administrative growth in Latin American universities are complex. This growth probably stems partly from Cordoba's university reform3 in 1918, and partly from earlier movements for the democratization of the Latin American universities in Uruguay, where the idea of an autonomous democratic university first emerged. Cordoba's reform movement was an important influence in replacing the autocracy of Latin American universities with a democratic campus system. But later developments — including an excess of politics and the development of trades unions among the administrative staff and students — have eroded the original initiative in many universities.

Drastic measures are required to minimize bureaucracy and improve efficiency, but university authorities (which are elected) will not risk their popularity. A few countries in the region have had some success in cutting their administrations down to size, but this has not been possible in others because of powerful unions and rigid control by the administrative system.

University managements have a responsibility to create a more dynamic, efficient research environment. Governments in the region should hold them responsible for unproductiveness in research and teaching.