Audit Scotland has been called to step in after it emerged that the elite group of officials had been given salary increases of up to 70% over five years while at the same time making staff redundant.

Some of the officials, 12 of whom now receive remuneration packages of more than £200,000, have also been getting bonuses and private health care paid by the taxpayer. Hugh Henry, the chair of Holyrood’s public audit committee, said the pay rises were “truly staggering”.

The public purse currently puts more than £1 billion per year into the country’s higher education institutions, many of which have complained of a funding shortfall and cut staffing levels to make savings.

However, an analysis of each institution’s annual accounts since 2004 has established that universities have still found enough money to award massive pay rises to their principals.

For instance, the salary of the principal of the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI) has risen from £97,440 in 2004 to £162,000 in 2009 – an increase of almost 70%.

The total remuneration of the same post-holder has increased from £111,000 to £185,000 in the same period, another rise just shy of 70%. This includes private health care.

A spokesman said of the increases: “They are set by the remuneration committee and reviewed in line with sector norms.”

Since 2004, the salary of the principal of Stirling University has increased from £132,000 to £213,000, a near 60% increase. In the same period, the full package enjoyed by the same official has increased from about £151,000 to £243,000.

Earlier this year, the university unveiled plans for a voluntary severance scheme as a way of saving £4.2m.

A spokesman said the increase compares with other posts in similarly sized institutions.

Glasgow University has also left itself open to criticism over its pay policy.

Its principal’s salary and pension package increased from £194,000 in 2004 to £284,000 in 2009 – a rise of about 47%.

It was recently revealed that the university was discussing plans to reduce its 45 academic departments to a maximum of 25.

A spokeswoman said the increases were “performance-related”.

At a glance, Edinburgh University appears to have awarded its principal less generous awards.

Between 2003 and 2008, its top official enjoyed a salary increase from £170,000 to £228,00, an increase of almost 35%.

However, principal Sir Timothy O’Shea also benefited from a £10,000 bonus in 2006 and a £15,000 payment this year by the university to purchase 95 days of extra pensionable service.

He is also entitled to an annual private health check-up and the use of a chauffeur-driven car.

A spokesman said an independent review concluded that the principal’s remuneration was low compared with other vice-chancellors in elite universities.

Abertay University’s annual accounts also record increases for its principal.

Since 2004, Professor Bernard King’s salary has risen from £165,000 to £189,000, a modest increase of about 15%. However, he also received a £18,900 bonus last year, in the middle of the credit crunch.

His full remuneration package in the same five-year period jumped from £187,000 to £236,000, the equivalent of about 25%. A spokesman said the bonus was paid in lieu of a pay increase that year.

Glasgow School of Art is another institution that has managed to increase its most senior employee’s pay.

Director Seona Reid’s salary is listed as having risen by almost 70% between 2004 and 2009, from £82,000 to £138,000.

Her remuneration has steadily increased from £94,000 to £159,000 in the same period, which is also a 70% hike.

However, the school’s director of finance and resources said the listed figures included back-pay due to the principal from 2006.

The official added that her salary would fall in 2009/10.

The principal of Queen Margaret University (QMU) in Edinburgh has also enjoyed generous pay increases.

The post-holder’s salary rose from £113,850 in 2004 to £162,063 in 2009, a hike of almost 40%, while her remuneration package now stands at £184,752. This is in spite of the organisation declaring a multi-million-pound deficit in 2007-08.

A spokeswoman said the principal’s salary is considered by a remuneration committee.

The principal of the University of St Andrews enjoyed a pay increase of almost 35% between 2004 and 2008. The salary of Brian Lang, who is no longer in post, rose from £161,000 to £214,000, while his full package jumped from £192,000 to £250,000 – a 30% increase.

At the University of Strathclyde, the principal’s emoluments – including salary, pension and maintenance of property – jumped by about 32% between 2004 and 2008. Professor Jim McDonald received £225,000 last year.

A spokeswoman said the rises “appropriately” reflect the principal’s levels of responsibility.

The pay of Edinburgh College of Art’s principal, currently Professor Ian Howard, has also shot up. Attracting a salary of £82,563 in 2004, the incumbent now receives £118,529 – a boost of nearly 45%. In the same period, his total remuneration rose from £88,000 to £134.500, a hike of more than 50%.

A spokeswoman said the boosts were “in line” with sector increases.

It was reported earlier this year that the principals accepted inflation-busting salary increases of nearly 10% in 2007-08, a year in which higher education institutions again called for more funding.

This newspaper can also reveal that the publicly funded universities have collectively spent in the region of £250,000 on private health care for senior staff.

Glasgow Caledonian University has spent around £78,000 on providing senior employees with private cover since 2006.

In the case of Caledonian, which has gone through a voluntary redundancy scheme, spouses and partners of executive and dean-level staff can also be included.

Similarly, QMU has shelled out £28,000 since 2005 to the Permanent Healthcare Company Limited, while the Robert Gordon University gave the same firm about £45,000 to provide private health care to an average of seven staff per year.

Other universities to have provided the perk include Abertay, UHI, Napier and Heriot-Watt University.

Strathclyde funds biannual health screening for senior staff, while the University of Edinburgh provides a Bupa assessment to 10 key employees.

Hugh Henry said of the rises: “Universities seem to be accountable to no-one but themselves. I am calling on Scottish ministers to examine this damning evidence and consider ways to control this profligacy.

“I have also asked Audit Scotland to look at how universities have rewarded senior staff over the past five years.”

Bill Kidd, an SNP MSP for Glasgow, said: “Principals have to be top calibre, but once you start accelerating their wages, especially when other staff are not receiving such increases, it does call into question the priorities of universities.

“I don’t think widening the pay gap is something higher education ­institutions should be looking at. I’ll be asking ­questions in Parliament about this,” added Kidd.