Vice-chancellors' salaries have soared by a quarter in just three years, according to the annual Times Higher pay survey.
Last year's average rise was 8 per cent, but it was the scale of the combined increases between 2001-02 and 2004-05 that provoked the angriest response from lecturers' unions, whose claim for a 23 per cent rise over three years will almost certainly be rejected.
Pay rises topped 50 per cent for a handful of vice-chancellors. The unions said that they would write to Ruth Kelly, Education Secretary, to demand an inquiry.
The vice-chancellors of Cardiff and Surrey universities were awarded 61 per cent rises between 2001-02 and 2004-05. Cardiff's vice-chancellor, David Grant, oversaw the incorporation of the University of Wales College of Medicine.
Many of the universities with the biggest increases appointed a new head or underwent mergers. At Oxford University, for example, the vice-chancellor's salary rose by 58 per cent in three years.
Alan Gilbert, vice-chancellor of Manchester University, which was created from the merger of the Victoria University of Manchester and the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, was awarded a salary 54 per cent higher than that of Sir Martin Harris, head of Victoria Manchester three years ago.
Eighteen vice-chancellors earn more than £200,000 and 33 earn more than Tony Blair, whose salary is £184,000. The top earner is Laura Tyson, dean of the London Business School, on £310,000.
Sally Hunt, general secretary of the Association of University Teachers, said: "Now we know that vice-chancellors have received a 25 per cent pay rise over three years, we will call the industrial action off immediately and are happy to confirm that we will accept an offer of 25 per cent over three years for members."
Andy Pike, national official for universities at lecturers' union Natfhe, said the rises were hypocritical and had taken place when the sector was starved of funding. "A lesser claim for lecturers is being rejected as top-up fees are bringing in a huge injection of cash," he added.
A spokesperson for Oxford, whose new vice-chancellor, John Hood, was paid £197,000, said the increase reflected the historically low level of the Oxford salary.
Patrick Dowling, Surrey's vice-chancellor, retired in June 2005. A spokesman said that his £266,000 salary included a one-off bonus after a successful 11-year tenure.
A statement from the Universities and Colleges Employers' Association and Universities UK said such salaries were needed to attract and retain people of sufficient calibre. It said that most academics were entitled to annual incremental progression and would have seen their pay increase by up to 26 per cent between 2001-02 and 2004-05.
Link to table in the Statistics section: Vice-chancellors' pay 2004-05