Three universities in England paid their vice-chancellors £500,000 or more in salary, bonuses and benefits last year, figures show.
Data from the Office for Students (OfS) shows that 1.8% of university staff received a basic salary of £100,000 or more in the academic year 2019/20 – up slightly from 1.7% in 2018/19.
But the proportion of staff receiving a basic salary of greater than £100,000 fell or stayed the same at nearly half (48%) of all providers.
The analysis looks at the pay of vice-chancellors and other senior staff at 166 providers over 2019/20 so it only accounts for the start of the pandemic.
The watchdog acknowledges that some university leaders may have chosen to waive part of their remuneration over the past 18 months.
According to the analysis, the University of Exeter was at the top of the list for remuneration in 2019/20, as the head of the provider received a pay and benefits package of £584,000.
Imperial College London came second with a total remuneration of £527,000, and third spot was taken by the London School of Economics (LSE) with a pay and benefits package of £507,000.
Total remuneration paid to vice-chancellors and other heads of higher education providers rose in 93 providers (56%), fell in 60 providers (36%) and remained the same in 12 providers (7%), the report shows.
Overall, the mean paid basic salary for the heads of all providers was £219,000 for 2019/20 and the mean total remuneration was £269,000 – both up slightly.
The figures have been published after staff at universities voted in favour of strike action in two ballots over pensions and pay and working conditions.
Students at 58 institutions could be affected by walkouts before the end of the year. The University and College Union’s (UCU) higher education committee will meet on Friday to decide the next steps.
Nicola Dandridge, chief executive at the OfS, said: “These figures demonstrate that, across the sector as a whole, pay increases for vice-chancellors were lower than the increases recommended for all university staff.
“But that should not disguise the fact that some of these salaries, and the differences in pay between vice-chancellors and academic staff, will appear very high. Those universities should not be surprised to be asked difficult questions about this.”
She added: “Leading a university is a complex and difficult role that requires great flexibility, knowledge and experience, and it is right that those who excel in these roles should be properly rewarded.
“However, where there are instances of an imbalance in pay at universities, it is important that this information is freely available and open to scrutiny.”
Jo Grady, general secretary of the UCU, warned that the figures exposed the “cavernous gap in pay between university staff and management” and it will only make members “more determined to take action”.
She said: “These grotesque levels of inequality are not only immoral but unsustainable too, undermining the whole sector.
“Vice-chancellors on average are now enjoying a total remuneration of £269,000 per year and they should now look their staff in the eye and explain why they can’t provide proper pay rises, decent pensions and secure contracts.
“Vice-chancellors like to claim they are paid these astronomical sums because they are uniquely talented and influential, but the reality is that they oversee a sector in which a demoralised staff are forced to take industrial action on an almost yearly basis.”
Hillary Gyebi-Ababio, vice-president for higher education at the National Union of Students (NUS), said it was “disappointing” that vice chancellors have seen a pay rise amid concerns about staff pension cuts.
She said: “With vice-chancellors’ average total pay rising to £269,000 per year, it is clear that UUK and UCEA can afford to resolve their dispute with UCU over staff pay, which has fallen by an average of 20% between 2009 and 2019.
“Staff teaching conditions are student learning conditions, and university bosses must come to the table to address this issue and minimise disruption for students.”
Michael Queen, chairman of the Committee of University Chairs (CUC), said: “Universities are highly complex organisations that operate in an increasingly competitive international environment.
“They face increasing challenges to which they continue to respond by enhancing their presence and reputation, internationally, nationally and locally, while at the same time maintaining and improving the learning and teaching, they offer and the research they undertake.
“Over the last 18 months, they made an enormous contribution to dealing with the Covid pandemic – through world-class research, the development and production of PPE and the provision of their facilities to the community.”
A spokesman for the University of Exeter said: “Our former vice-chancellor was one of the longest serving and most experienced in the sector, who achieved extraordinary success during his 18-year tenure at the University of Exeter.
“His salary and reward arrangements were independently set by the university’s remuneration committee and the details made publicly available.
“This included an exceptional target-led, conditional and long-term incentive scheme, agreed in 2013, and which is shown in the figures for 2019/20.
“Under the terms of this contractual retention scheme the vice-chancellor was eligible for a bonus each year, which was only paid on condition that he remained at the university until 2020.
“This reflected the value and importance of the vice-chancellor’s experience, guidance and expertise to the achievement of the university’s strategic objectives over several years.”