Australian universities spend up to 10 per cent of their wages bills on salaries for top executives and the total probably exceeds Aus$200 million (Pounds 74 million) each year.
On average, 55 per cent of each university's budget goes on staff wages - nationwide that amounts to over $4 billion a year - and executive salaries comprise a growing part of this huge sum.
The University of Melbourne's annual report for 1997 reveals its executives and directors of related units were paid Aus$30 million last year, or 9.5 per cent of the Aus$325 million in staff costs. At Monash University, directors and executives received Aus$20 million - 6.6 per cent of the allocation for salaries and related expenses.
At the University of Western Australia last year, the 11 senior officers who individually earned over Aus$100,000 took away a total of Aus$2.3 million. While that was 2 per cent of UWA's overall wages bill, the annual report shows that when vice-chancellor Fay Gale retired she was earning almost Aus$500,000.
The amounts paid to the chief executives of these higher education institutions vary widely according to size and status. But few if any are on less than Aus$200,000 and many are on packages worth Aus$300,000 to Aus$500,000 if the cost of their cars, houses and entertainment expenses are included.
A storm of controversy erupted in Brisbane recently when it was revealed that the University of Queensland vice-chancellor was on Aus$260,000 and a package that included a performance bonus of Aus$25,000 (which he received last year), plus an Aus$95,000 housing allowance and an expensive car.
Vice-chancellors point out that these sums look small compared with the salaries paid to the heads of big corporations where annual incomes in the millions are common, or when the size of a university's operations is considered.
But it is the growth in the number of executives in universities and the increasing proportion of the overall wages bill allocated to them that concerns the National Tertiary Education Union.
With its campaign under way for a 19 per cent pay rise for academic and general staff, the union is planning an investigation into how much each university spends on its executives. It will be forced to use freedom of information legislation to obtain much of this financial detail, given that most states do not require universities to reveal in annual reports what they pay their executives.