DURHAM University boss Christopher Higgins has taken flak after receiving a £21,000 pay rise.
Professor Higgins, who earns £232,000 a year, was listed in a report showing vice-chancellors at the UK’s top universities were handed average pay of almost £280,000 in 2011/12.
One union leader said the figures showed a “lack of self-awareness” from university leaders.
It comes after Durham University chose to charge students the maximum £9,000-per-year fees.
But the Russell Group – which includes Durham – argued its universities contribute tens of billions of pounds to the UK economy and that “first-rate leadership and academic talent are crucial if our universities are to continue to excel in a challenging economic climate”.
Analysis by the Times Higher Education magazine reveals that on average a vice-chancellor at a Russell Group university which– are considered the best institutions in the country – was paid £277,000 in 2011/12, up 4.1 per cent (£10,175).
Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union (UCU), which represents lecturers, said: “Staff are rightly tired of the hypocrisy from vice-chancellors when it comes to pay and pensions. One rule for upstairs and another for downstairs seems to be the order of the day.
“The lack of self-awareness from university leaders when it comes to their own perks is an embarrassment for the sector and insulting to the staff within it who work so hard.
“While staff have seen their real-terms pay fall for successive years, many vice-chancellors and principals have had their snouts firmly in the trough, including the receipt of huge pay awards to get round new pension rules.”
Robert Gillespie, chairman of Durham University Council, defended Professor Higgins’ salary.
He said: “Compensation levels for senior employees are determined by the remuneration committee of University Council which believes that competitive salary packages are essential to attract and retain outstanding individuals in an international market for talent.
“Under the present vice-chancellor’s leadership, Durham has achieved UK top five and a world top 100 university status, membership of the Russell Group of universities and has shown greatly improved performance in research, education and the national student survey.”
Dr Wendy Piatt, director general of the Russell Group, added: “Our vice-chancellors and other senior staff lead complex multimillion-pound organisations that succeed on a global stage.
“This success benefits Britain and is vital for growth. Russell Group institutions contribute tens of billions of pounds to the UK economy. First-rate leadership and academic talent are crucial if our universities are to continue to excel in a challenging economic climate.
“In view of the ongoing financial challenges that universities are facing, many vice-chancellors agreed to only very modest increases, pay freezes or even pay cuts in recent years. In 2010/11 the average Russell Group vice-chancellor pay increase was lower than UK inflation and the country’s average pay rise.”
Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of Universities UK, said: “The remuneration packages for vice-chancellors are in line with those in competitor countries and with the heads of public and private organisations of a similar size.
“They reflect what it takes to recruit and retain individuals able to fill this role. There has also been restraint in relation to remuneration over recent years.”
Remuneration packages often include benefits such as pensions.
The magazine reports a number of vice-chancellors received less in employer pension contributions in the last academic year as cuts to pension tax relief were introduced.