The government has been accused of following a "cynical strategy" to silence vice-chancellors' protests over funding cuts by publicly attacking their six-figure salaries.
It comes as a Times Higher Education survey suggests that many university leaders give part of their pay back to their institutions. Some 90 per cent of respondents made such a donation last year, with most pledging another gift this year.
Of the 18 vice-chancellors who revealed the value of their donations, more than half gave at least £10,000 - a figure that represents almost 5 per cent of the average salary in the sector in 2008-09.
The largest donations were already on record: Eric Thomas, vice-chancellor of the University of Bristol, made a £100,000 gift last year, and David Eastwood, vice-chancellor of the University of Birmingham, gave £40,000. Both were part of key fundraising campaigns. Other donors include Tim Wilson, vice-chancellor of the University of Hertfordshire, who gave £17,893 to his institution.
THE asked more than 120 vice-chancellors if they made a financial contribution to their university last year. Of the 43 who responded, 36 made a donation, two did not and five did not comment. Most say they would also contribute in the future, with only two stating that they had no such intention.
The survey follows comments by Malcolm Grant, provost of University College London, who said he had made donations to UCL approaching 10 per cent of his salary in recent years.
Professor Grant - who was awarded salary and benefits totalling £376,000 in 2008-09 - also announced he would take an immediate pay cut of 10 per cent in response to the "acute financial pressures on Britain's world-class universities".
The move came in the wake of business secretary Vince Cable's comments to a national newspaper that he was "taken aback" that vice-chancellors' pay rose by more than 10 per cent in 2008-09.
Privately, university leaders are angry that Mr Cable used figures from two years ago - the pay decisions for 2008-09 were taken by remuneration committees in 2008.
More recent figures from the Universities and Colleges Employers Association suggest settlements for 2009-10 are much lower, with 70 per cent of heads receiving either no pay increase or 0.5 per cent.
Some regard Mr Cable's interview as an attempt to lay the political ground for future cuts.
One vice-chancellor, who asked to remain anonymous, said: "One explanation, favoured by many people, for Mr Cable's comments are that they are a cynical strategy to silence vice-chancellors over current and future cuts to higher education because any criticism will be simply met with a 'fat cats complaining' defence."
Others reacted to the row by stating publicly that they are following Professor Grant's lead and taking a pay cut. Richard Barnett, vice-chancellor of the University of Ulster, will accept a 5 per cent cut next year, while a spokesman for the University of Warwick said that its vice-chancellor, Nigel Thrift, took a 5.3 per cent cut this year, with his pay frozen after that.
Steve Smith, president of Universities UK, said that anger over large salaries was understandable, but warned that it should not detract from the wider funding crisis facing the sector.
He said: "The danger is that we end up with a spat over salaries when the really huge issue is the millions at stake for the future funding of universities."