SCOTTISH university leaders have been attacked for accepting inflation-busting increases to their pay packets.

New figures show several principals took significant salary increases in 2014/15 despite the current financial climate - either in pay rises, bonuses or pensions changes.

The largest overall increase was the 15 per cent accepted by Professor Pete Downes, from Dundee University, who saw his overall remuneration climb to £261,000 after changes to his pension arrangements.

Professor Petra Wend, the principal of Queen Margaret University, in Edinburgh, was given the second largest increase with her salary package rising 13.4 per cent to £228,000.

Professor Louise Richardson, the former principal of St Andrews University, in Fife, took a pay rise in her last year of more than eight per cent, taking her salary to £294,000. She was criticised last year for accepting a one-off bonus of £30,000 in 2013/14.

And Professor Andrea Nolan, from Edinburgh Napier University, accepted a £9,000 bonus, which officials said was in recognition of her performance.

Mary Senior, Scotland Official for the UCU union, which represents academics and support workers, said the increases had come at a time when staff were awarded only two per cent.

She said: "Staff and students will be staggered to see the huge pay rises for those running our universities when staff had to take strike action last year to achieve even a small pay rise.

"The enormous disparities in the levels of pay and the pay rises at the top exposes the arbitrary nature of senior pay in our universities.

"Some continue to enjoy inflation-busting pay hikes at the same time as they are trying to say there is nothing wrong with the way universities are run."

Emily Beever, NUS Scotland women’s officer, also attacked the increases which, which comes at a time when universities are facing reforms to the way they are run to make them more democratic.

She said: "It’s incredibly disappointing to see yet another year where principal’s pay has shot up well above and beyond inflation.

"Universities are facing budget cuts, staff are overworked and underpaid and there’s little transparency or accountability about how these decisions have been made or any sign it will mean improvements in the experience of students.

"We shouldn’t accept a system where it’s become routine for principals and senior managers to exist on completely separate pay scales to lecturing staff and where five figure pay rises are handed out while budgets are being cut elsewhere."

However, universities defended the increases and argued many university leaders had refused to accept pay rises in recent years.

Alastair Sim, director of Universities Scotland, said: “Decisions on senior pay in universities have strong lines of accountability and oversight by the governing body which includes staff and student members.

"The governing body approves the process the remuneration committee works to and it has to be satisfied that all decisions on pay coming from the remuneration committee are compliant with those processes.

“Some of these figures make for easy headlines if viewed in isolation, but there are important contextual factors behind many of them."

Overall, Professor Sir Jim McDonald, principal of Strathclyde University, in Glasgow, remains the highest paid principal in Scotland with a salary package of £343,000. His university is currently ranked eighth in Scotland in the Times Higher Education tables.

The highest ranked university in Scotland is Edinburgh where principal Professor Sir Timothy O'Shea accepted just one per cent this year - the sector's lowest increase - taking his salary package to £289,000.

The increases come at a time when the university sector has seen its funding restricted 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.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is entitled to earn £144,687 for being an MSP and minister, but only claims £135,605 as part of a voluntary pay freeze.

A spokesman for Dundee University said the change to the principal’s pay reflected a transfer from pension contributions to salary.

He said: "As a result his total cost of employment is slightly less than it would have been had the university continued making contributions to the Universities Superannuation Scheme on his behalf."

A spokeswoman for QMU said the principal received a reduction in her remuneration in the previous year and the changes arose from an "objective benchmarking exercise by an external consultant".

A spokesman for St Andrews University said the principal had given £120,000 in donations back to the university.

He added: "Professor Richardson did not seek nor accept a salary increase for six years following her appointment as in 2009.

"During that time, St Andrews experienced one of the most successful periods in its history.

"In 2014, university Court awarded Professor Richardson a one-off bonus payment of £30,000 in recognition of these achievements.

"In 2015, she was awarded an increase in salary, the only increment she received during seven years as principal."