Researchers from Bradford University say some vice-chancellors are "overpaid" by more than pounds 20,000 and others "underpaid" because of the way universities determine salaries.
The fact that someone has a knighthood or a public honour, they say, appears to count for more than the academic qualifications they possess.
The study looked at 64 higher education institutions whose vice-chancellors or principals were paid from pounds 46,000 (Dartington College of the Arts) to pounds 137,000 (University College, London) to discover how their salaries had been decided.
They found few of the 32 factors that might have been expected to influence the decision, such as the number of staff employed, had been considered. If they had been taken into account, some vice-chancellors would have been paid much more and some much less.
The result of the Higher Education Funding Council's research assessment exercise, which grades departments, played no part. Nor did the number of staff and students. Research income is the only part of a university's funding that is considered. The amount from student fees and grant, determined partly by the quality of research, does not feature.
Vice-chancellors with public honours are earning 22 per cent more than their counterparts while a professorship increases pay by only 13 per cent above that of a doctor. From this year the Government has said that vice-chancellors' salaries must be published. The Bradford survey is based on those universities that have already published the information.
Mark Baimbridge, a lecturer in economics who did the research, said: "Factors which would make a big difference to your pay if you were a managing director, like the company's performance and the number of staff, have little or no impact on vice-chancellors' salaries."
Mr Baimbridge and Claire Simpson, his assistant, calculate that 32 of the vice-chancellors in their survey are overpaid. According to their criteria, the principal of Queen Mary and Westfield College, London, (salary pounds 120,000) is overpaid by pounds 26,000, while the vice-chancellor of Manchester University (salary pounds 104,000) is underpaid by pounds 24,000. The vice-chancellor of Oxford gets pounds 91,000, an underpayment of just pounds 400.
New universities, which are former polytechnics, say they have to pay more to attract good applicants and raise the status of their institutions. But not all the new universities are paying six-figures salaries. The survey says that the vice-chancellor of the University of the West of England, in Bristol, (salary pounds 79,000) is underpaid by pounds 18,000. By contrast, the vice-chancellor of Nottingham Trent University, who earns pounds 114,000, is overpaid by pounds 18,000.
Scientists earned around 15 per cent more than those with social science or arts backgrounds.
Mr Baimbridge said: "We are suggesting all vice-chancellors should have a basic salary with an additional income based on their performance."Reuse content