Two unions have threatened to use a new campaign to "name and shame" universities that fail to award all staff a "living wage".
The National Union of Students and Unison said all employees in higher education – including those employed by private sub-contractors on campus – should be paid at least the current living wage of £7.20 an hour or £8.30 in London.
Set independently every year, the wage is calculated according to the cost of living and gives the minimum pay rate required for a worker to provide their family with the essentials of life.
The two organisations plan to publicly identify those institutions that fail to award the wage to their lowest paid staff. They will also create a "league table" showing which universities have the biggest gap between the lowest and highest paid employees.
Dannie Grufferty, vice-president of NUS for society and citizenship, said: “There is clearly an inherent injustice in the average vice-chancellor getting paid more than 17 times more than a minimum wage employee on their campus.
“Colleges and universities are a community and everyone within that community needs to be treated with dignity and that means paying them a wage they can live on for their work.
“The difference between minimum wage and a living wage is the difference between constant money worries and being able to make ends meet. It also makes sense for employers who’ll see a rise in productivity and greater retention of staff.
“Employers at colleges and universities have six months to get their house in order before we name and shame those that allow such shocking disparities to continue.”
Jon Richards, Unison national secretary for education and children’s services, said: “It is time universities got their houses in order.
“While top pay has skyrocketed – with some vice-chancellors now earning over £300,000 – the lowest paid are on poverty wages.
“As educational institutions, they should know better. Low pay and inequality are at the heart of the huge problems that we face as a society today. We are determined that this disgraceful pay gap is closed.”
The campaign was launched at Unison’s higher education conference in Brighton on 2 March.