Vice-chancellors had asked for cuts in their pay rises because they feared angering their underpaid staff, The THES can reveal.
In private interviews with economics researchers, several vice-chancellors said that they did not want to accept the performance-related rises that they had been offered.
Ada Ma, research assistant at the University of Aberdeen, said: "Yes, [vice-chancellors] are afraid of open hostility from their staff. But I don't know if the university sector is unique in this.
"The universities structure their v-c pay in timetables that would attract the least amount of confrontations from their staff. The variable 'golden handshake' tells us that lots of v-cs are paid more, possibly in the form of a bonus, in their final year of governance."
The research, based on figures published annually in The THES , looked at vice-chancellors' pay, considering them as chief executive officers of universities.
The researchers found that vice-chancellors' salaries have risen by an average of 2.6 per cent above inflation each year since their salaries were first disclosed in 1994.
But they concluded that vice-chancellors were not overpaid. Some were paid more than others because they were better qualified, had more experience or had a better record, for example, because they came from another university or industry.
Improving the research assessment exercise score of their institution earned vice-chancellors higher pay rises. It was calculated that for every point above the UK-wide average RAE score, a vice-chancellor gained between 1.9 per cent and 2.7 per cent on his salary.
Ms Ma's research was carried out with Peter Dolton at the University of Newcastle. It will be presented at next week's Royal Economics Society annual conference.