Vice-chancellors enjoyed an “inflation-busting” pay rise during 2014-2015, with the average annual wage now £272,432 according to a new report, published on Thursday.
Andrew Hamilton, vice-chancellor at Oxford University, received the largest salary of UK university heads, earning £462,000 for the year.
Two universities, Durham and Salford, paid a higher figure over the same period, as they had changed vice-chancellors during the year. Their combined payout for two salaries meant that the universities had spent in excess of £500,000.
The average figure of £272,432, based on data provided by 152 universities across the UK, was an increase of more than £12,000 from the 2013-2014 average wage of £260,290.
The University and College Union (UCU), who authored the report, also revealed how vice-chancellors regularly benefitted from their role by having thousands of pounds spent on hotels and flights.
The report suggests perks for vice-chancellors totalled hundreds of thousands of pounds. The average expenditure on flights was £8,560.37. Almost 50% of these were in first or business classes, with 21 university leaders never flying economy over the year. Professor Sir Jim McDonald from Strathclyde University spent in excess of £41,000 on flights.
Average expenditure on hotels was £2,989,93, with Professor Pamela Gillies of Glasgow Caledonian University racking up a bill of £19,864.77 for her hotel stays.
Pay for bosses has increased by 14% in the last five years alone. Compared with their staff, vice-chancellors earn almost seven times as much as other university employees, who only saw a 5% increase in their pay over the same period.
UCU general secretary Sally Hunt said there needed to be more "open discussions" about pay and ways vice-chancellors spend university money: “The huge disparities in the levels of pay at the top expose the arbitrary nature of senior pay in our universities.
“While some continue to enjoy inflation-busting pay hikes and all the trimmings of first-class flights and luxury hotels, staff pay continues to be held down.”
UCU obtained the data through a series of FOI requests dating back to 2014. In its first report, many universities declined to provide the data of their top earners, but increased pressure for transparency from former business secretary, Vince Cable, and former minister of the state for education, David Willetts, has forced universities to reconsider their policies.
Of the 159 institutions contacted for information, only 18 universities failed to provide at least some data, although only 35 institutions provided complete unredacted minutes from their remuneration committee meetings.
The figures are likely to infuriate students, with Sorana Vieru, the National Union of Students vice-president, already describing the numbers as "obscene" when university departments are having to cut funding for teaching and essential student support.
She said: “When university finances are being stretched to breaking point, and are over-reliant on ever rising tuition fees, it is almost immoral to see the generous expense policies afforded to already extremely well-paid vice-chancellors.”
Defending the figures, a spokesperson for Oxford University said: “According to this year's Times Higher Education World University Rankings, Oxford is the number one university in the UK and number two in the world.
Its research output is vast, it has more than a billion pounds a year in turnover, not including the colleges and Oxford University Press, and it has great institutional complexity. The vice-chancellor's salary reflects that.”
A representative for Glasgow Caledonian University also justified the high pay and spending habits of its VC, suggesting that her role in developing the university far outweighed the costs: “The Principal and Vice-Chancellor plays a leading role in developing research, business, academic and philanthropic partnerships.
“Professor Gillies maximises the value of each business trip by fulfilling a full schedule of engagements to further the interests of the university and Scotland.”
The news comes the same day as Warwick University SU released a statement condemning the £92,000 bonus for its outgoing vice-chancellor, Nigel Thrift, saying the figure was "astonishingly inept and out-of-touch with ordinary people’s lives".
Thrift has already said he will donate £50,000 of this figure, which the university justified as "benchmarking against the national average". However, the SU has called for an apology from the renumeration committee and requested that Thrift donate the additional £42,000 to student bursaries.
In their complaint, the union team said the figure could be better spent investing in students: "It hardly needs to be suggested just how much £92,000 would buy - three well-qualified, full-time student mental health workers for a year; innumerable bursaries for junior doctors or students from low-income backgrounds; five full-time clerical officers at the University."