The majority of university vice-chancellors are either members of the committee that decides their salary or are allowed to attend its meetings, according to research which will stoke concerns about the fairness of executive pay in higher education.
A freedom of information (FOI) request by the University and College Union (UCU), which represents university staff, found that 95% of university leaders are either members of their remuneration committee or entitled to attend meetings.
Just seven of the 158 institutions surveyed said their vice-chancellor was effectively barred from attending.
Of those who responded, almost half (47%) said their vice-chancellor was a member of the remuneration committee, while of those who were not members, 67 were still allowed to attend committee meetings.
The findings, published on Thursday, will anger critics who have accused vice-chancellors of paying themselves inflated salaries – while students accrue huge debts – via “shadowy” remuneration committees which lack transparency.
The FOI request also asked institutions to send full minutes of the most recent meeting of their remuneration committee. Three quarters of universities failed to send full minutes; 89 institutions (55%) agreed to share minutes, but only 40 did so without any redactions.
Fresh guidelines on senior executive pay published by the Committee of University Chairs (CUC) last month made clear that vice-chancellors should not sit on the committees deciding their salaries and should play no part in the decision-making process, but critics complained the guidance was voluntary and lacked teeth.
It was drawn up in response to growing pressure from politicians, including the former universities minister Jo Johnson and Labour’s former education minister Andrew Adonis, who have condemned spiralling vice-chancellor salaries and the lack of transparency around executive remuneration.
The code is currently out for consultation and is expected to be adopted later this year. The new university regulator, the Office for Students, has warned it will intervene if the sector cannot put its house in order.
Last year, Bath University was the subject of a damning report into senior pay and governance at the university. The Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce) said oversight of vice-chancellor Prof Glynis Breakwell’s pay, which peaked at £468,000 a year, lacked transparency and that the reputation of the university had been damaged by its handling of the matter when concerns were raised.
UCU general secretary Sally Hunt called for all vice-chancellors to be removed from remuneration committees and barred from attending meetings. She said staff and students should be given seats on the committees and all minutes should be made public.
“For too long universities have got away with painting remuneration committees as independent bodies to deflect attention over senior pay.
“The time has come for proper transparency of senior pay and perks in our universities and that starts with full disclosure of the shadowy remuneration committee.
“We are pleased the Office for Students has said it wants to tackle the issue but plenty of politicians have tried to address the problem in the past and failed. Staff and students should be given seats at the top table in universities and all minutes should be made public.”
A spokesman for Universities UK, which represents institutions in the sector, said: “It is right to expect that the process for determining senior university staff pay is rigorous and transparent.
“The CUC’s new remuneration code, currently being consulted upon, will provide important guidance for university remuneration committees to ensure senior pay decisions are fair, accountable and justified, while recognising that competitive pay is necessary to attract first rate leaders.”
Vice-chancellor pay has risen sharply in recent years. According to the UCU, the average pay for vice-chancellors in 2005/06 was £165,105 (not including pensions), which increased by 56.2% over the next decade to £257,904 in 2015/16.
Next week UCU members at 61 universities will launch four weeks of strike action, to protest against planned changes to their pensions which they say will mean a typical lecturer will received £10,000 a year less in retirement.