UNIVERSITY principals could have their bonuses axed and salary rises severely limited under radical plans proposed by a review of the higher-education sector.

A ministerial panel has also backed elected university court chairs, staff and student representation on remuneration committees, and a requirement for 40% of Court members to be women. But the groundbreaking report has rejected the direct election of principals.

A spokesperson for NUS Scotland said: "We've been fully supportive of the idea of elected chairs for universities for some time. If it's true that this will be proposed in the forthcoming governance review then that's great news.

"We need our universities to be democratically accountable and having students, staff and hopefully the wider community involved in how universities are run could be a great way to secure it."

Education Secretary Mike Russell set up a review of university governance last year amid concerns about principals' soaring pay and a perceived lack of accountability in the institutions.

Chaired by Professor Ferdinand Von Prondzynski, the principal of Robert Gordon University, the review group's report is with the Scottish Government and Russell is expected to make a statement on its findings this Wednesday.

In one of the sector's biggest ever power shifts, the Sunday Herald understands the panel's recommendations would, at a stroke, reduce the influence of principals and end the days of big salary rises.

It is believed the review has called for no salary increases for principals or senior managers beyond those enjoyed by staff until universities reform their internal procedures.

The report has called for bonuses to be scrapped, although it is believed the report says principals should be entitled to special payments that can presently be enjoyed by staff.

The review has also backed the inclusion of staff and students on university remuneration committees, which determine the salaries of the top-tier employees.

The proposals on strengthening university governing bodies, known as courts, are also far-reaching.

One of the key recommendations is believed to be the election of Court chairs by staff and students, a policy backed by NUS Scotland. Currently, chairs are only elected in a minority of universities.

In addition, the report is expected to call for chairs to be paid and court meetings to be public. It is understood the panel has backed plans for a majority of each court to be lay or external members, positions that will have to be advertised.

The report is also believed to propose courts should have a minimum of two student representatives, at least two directly elected staff, and members nominated by trade unions.

More radically, the review has backed plans for at least 40% of Courts to be female.

The findings reflect concerns the governing bodies do not represent the diversity of universities and fail to act as an effective check on the power of principals – who received average salary increases of 8% in 2008-09 at the same time staff got a 0.5% rise. In that year, Scotland's principals pocketed an average salary of more than £225,000.

Professor Tim O'Shea and Anton Muscatelli, the principals of Edinburgh and Glasgow universities, both receive remuneration packages in excess of £200,000.

Russell has been annoyed by some principals voicing support for tuition fees and pushing ahead with controversial closures to departments, while First Minister Alex Salmond has been critical of Muscatelli in the past. Salmond said last year: "You have the principal of Glasgow University who seems to spend his entire time fighting with his staff and the wider community over a £1 million cutback to community education."

Hugh Henry, Labour's shadow education secretary, said: "I hope these reforms help to hold the institutions to account."

But Liz Smith, the Conservatives' education spokeswoman, hit out at the plans: "I just don't see what the problem is with university governance - It's part of the SNP Government's centralisation agenda."

A spokesman for Universities Scotland said: "We await the recommendations with interest."

A Scottish Government spokesman said: "The Education Secretary will make a statement to parliament on Wednesday, as planned, which will cover the report on Higher Education Governance."

1 Elect the chairs of university courts

2 Include staff and students on university remuneration committees

3 Ensure 40% of court membership is female

4 Abolish bonuses for principals and limit salary increases

5 Ensure over 50% of Court membership is comprised of lay or external members