Three of the Midlands universities have been accused of paying "fat cat" salaries to their bosses, in excess of the Prime Minister’s wage.
A survey shows Birmingham University's Michael Sterling was the highest paid vice-chancellor in the region and third highest nationally, earning #250,000 in 2005/06. His pay compares with the #187,700 earned by Tony Blair.
Prof Sterling, who was responsible for a #360 million budget, received almost double the #136,700 earned by Education Secretary Alan Johnson, who controls a budget in excess of #52 billion.
The survey, by The Times Higher Education Supplement, reveals Aston University’s vice-chancellor Mike Wright was the second highest paid VC in the region and fourth nationally, earning #248,000.
Third regionally was Warwick University’s David VandeLinde, whose #210,000 was the 26th highest in the country.
The three men, all of whom retired last year, also received among the biggest one-off pension payments in the sector, headed by Prof Sterling’s #126,000 pay out.
The universities of Birmingham and Warwick last night defended the pay as good value for money considering the demands and complexity of the job.
Aston University, however, whose new vice chancellor Julia King is currently on a trip to France and India, refused to comment. It also refused to disclose the nature of her foreign visit.
Last night the University and College Union called for greater transparency on how vice-chancellor’s justified their salaries.
Mick Barr, vice president of the UCU, said: "This money is first and foremost for the benefit of the learner. There can be no justification for the vice chancellor at Birmingham University and elsewhere earning more than double the Secretary of State for Education.
"At the heart of this is governance and how public money is being spent. Members in higher education will be asking how can they justify these extortionate wages when the demands on them are increasing every day."
Sue Blackwell, vice president of the UCU’s Birmingham University branch, described Prof Sterling’s wage as "unbelievable".
"We would like to know what that is being rewarded for given that a number of our members are faced with compulsory redundancy. We would like to see public money being invested in proper support for higher education."
A spokesman for Birmingham University said: "Professor Michael Sterling is one of the longest serving VCs in the UK and is head of a large organisation that has around 29,000 students, 6,000 staff and a turnover of approximately #360 million.
"The agreement made with regards to the vice-chancellor’s pension is entirely consistent with other similar cases amongst our senior academic staff retiring before 65, and therefore was properly approved within the university as required by our own governance arrangements."
A spokesman for Warwick University, where Prof VandeLinde has been succeeded by Prof Nigel Thrift, said: "In terms of other public sector salaries it is pretty good. Warwick University has a #300 million turnover. We take students from 130 countries and have an international reputation. It is a huge concern."