Lecturers could earn more under a Conservative Party proposal to allow endowed universities to determine pay locally.
But the Conservative policy could also mean wide geographical differences in academic pay, as well as performance-related pay, union leaders have warned.
Universities with one-off endowments of about £1 billion would be better off than those reliant on state funding for teaching, a Conservative spokesman said. Vice-chancellors would have more cash at their disposal for pay awards, he said.
It could take ten years for all United Kingdom universities to be endowed under Conservative plans. All universities would be encouraged to bid for endowments from the outset. An institution would receive a lump-sum endowment - on average about £1 billion - which, through investment, it could use to raise about £70 million annually. The universities would be free to use their endowments to attract additional investment.
Wealthier endowed universities would be able to compete internationally for the best staff. This would reinforce the need for higher wages, the spokesman said.
Tom Wilson, head of universities at lecturers' union Natfhe, said: "If all higher education institutions received substantial extra funding, that would enable them to award long-overdue pay rises. But that is a very big 'if'."
A spokesman for the Association of University Teachers said: "It is a promise of jam tomorrow. Our policy is for an independent pay review for all academic and related staff. We would want to see any additional money for pay distributed across all staff."
Shadow education secretary Theresa May said that the bulk of the endowment money would come from the sale of telecommunications frequencies. Additional funding would come from the sale of student debt.
The National Union of Students has welcomed a Conservatives' proposal to raise the income threshold at which graduates start to repay their loans, from £10,000 to £20,000, but criticised a decision that the loans should attract commercial interest rates.
NUS president Owain James said: "The move would penalise those who take lower-paid jobs, those in public services, social workers and teachers, who would see their payments increase dramatically."