UNIVERSITY leaders have come under fire for pocketing inflation-busting pay rises.

New figures show a number of university principals took significant increases in renumeration in 2013/14 despite the current financial climate - either in pay rises or bonuses.

The largest overall increase was the 13 per cent accepted by Professor Louise Richardson, the principal of St Andrews University, in Fife.

Although her salary remained static at £225,000 she received a one off bonus of £30,000 and the value of other benefits doubled from £5000 to £10,000.

The biggest increase in salary was the eight per cent awarded to Professor Stephen Chapman, the principal of Heriot-Watt University, in Edinburgh, whose pay increased to £198,000. However, because he accepted a £20,000 bonus last year, but no bonus this year, his overall renumeration fell.

Professor Sir Jim McDonald, principal of Strathclyde University, in Glasgow, by far the highest paid principal in Scotland, took a seven per cent increase in 2013/14, taking his salary to £334,000 a year.

The university sector has seen its funding restricted in recent years as part of a wider squeeze on public spending.

There are also long-standing concerns about the lack of transparency over the way pay rises and bonuses for senior managers are decided, with principals in particular urged to show restraint by Scottish Government ministers.

Mary Senior, Scotland official for the UCU union, which represents academics and support staff, said it was time to legislate to ensure future pay rises were in step with wider pay increases.

She said: "At a time when our members' pay is being forced down as universities plead poverty, it is really quite incredible to see that, once again, some university heads believe it is acceptable to enjoy these inflation-busting pay rises.

"These figures also demonstrate the completely arbitrary nature of pay rises for university principals. The time has come for full scrutiny of senior pay in our universities.

Ms Senior said the forthcoming Higher Education Governance Bill was an opportunity for politicians to stop "secretive remuneration committees" awarding principals and senior managers "out-of-touch pay rises".

Gordon Maloney, president of student body NUS Scotland, described the sums of money now being earned by some principals as "staggering".

He said: "The figures show just 17 people earning more than £4 million between them. That is outrageous at the best of times, but when students are struggling to make ends meet and staff wages are going up by less than inflation year-in-year-out, it is completely unacceptable.

"This disastrously undermines the case for increased funding for our higher education institutions, money that should be going to paying staff enough to live on, teaching students, and funding research."

However, Universities Scotland, which represents principals, defended the increases and argued many university leaders had refused to accept pay rises.

A spokeswoman said: "Looking at the sector in aggregate there has been a 1.4 per cent increase in the total remuneration packages received by principals this year compared to last.

"This will be compared with the annual increase in pay for university staff, but in doing so it is important to remember that a great number of university staff receive service-related pay progression on top of annual pay awards - those that do would have been looking at a salary increase of four per cent or more in the same period."

A spokesman for St Andrews said the bonus paid to the principal, who has not received a salary increase since her appointment six years ago, was in recognition of the success of her leadership.

He said: "The university has achieved its highest ever rankings in UK league tables, is the only Scottish university in the UK top ten, has two years running been named Scottish University of the Year and has consistently topped the annual UK National Student Survey.

"It has also significantly expanded its numbers of students from deprived backgrounds, expanded the volume of scholarships and bursaries it offers, driven up the quality of its research and run an ambitious global fundraising campaign."

A spokesman for Strathclyde also defended the recent increases stating: "Strathclyde is one of the country's largest universities with more than 20,000 students and 3,000 staff.

"The university makes a significant contribution to the economy of Scotland and the UK. The principal's remuneration is a fair reflection of the high calibre of leadership required to grow the University's global status."

Nobody was available for comment at Heriot-Watt.