Most university bosses sit on, or attend, the pay committees that set the salaries of their institution’s senior staff, figures indicate.
Nearly half of vice-chancellors are members of their university’s remuneration bodies, according to data collected by the University and College Union (UCU), while others are able to attend meetings.
It warned that there needs to be full transparency of “senior pay and perks” at UK universities.
The data, obtained through freedom of information requests, comes amid growing concerns over spiralling salary hikes for university chiefs, with several high-profile figures, including ministers, calling for restraint.
Of those that said their leader was not a member of the pay committee, just seven said the vice-chancellor was not allowed to attend committee meetings.
One university said it did not have a remuneration committee.
In some universities, it may be the case that a vice-chancellor excuses themselves from the committee if they are a member, or from the meeting they are attending, when their own pay is discussed and set.
UCU general secretary Sally Hunt said: “It is quite staggering that just seven universities say their vice-chancellor was neither a member of the committee that sets their pay, nor allowed to attend the meetings.
“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.”
A spokesman for vice-chancellors group Universities UK said: “It is right to expect that the process for determining senior university staff pay is rigorous and transparent.
“The Committee of University Chair’s (CUC) 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.”
The draft code, published last month, says the process for setting pay must be transparent.
“Society has a right to know that taxpayers’ funds are being properly used and that the institution is being managed in the interest of students, the economy and society,” it says.
Pay for university chiefs has risen significantly in recent years, and in 2015/16 the typical salary of a UK vice-chancellor was 6.4 times that of the average university worker, according to a government consultation published in October.
Average pay last year including pensions and benefits was more than £280,000.
Under new proposals, universities will have to publish the pay of anyone earning more than £100,000 and give an explanation if someone is earning in excess of £150,000, equivalent to the Prime Minister’s salary.