It’s been a turbulent week for the universities sector.

On Monday, the government announced a year-long review into the tuition fee system. Theresa May said “the level of fees charged [in England] do not relate to the cost or quality of the course.”

And yesterday marked the first day of strikes by tens of thousands of lecturers and other staff protesting against changes to their pensions, which could see some staff £200,000 worse off in retirement.

One of the criticisms levelled at universities in recent months is that universities are not using the extra income from tuition fees wisely. Speaking on Radio 4 on Monday, the former education minister, Lord Adonis, said:

“My own view is that universities, as a result of the £9,250 fees, have become extremely bloated […] vice chancellors are being paid obscene salaries, there’s been an explosion in the management cadre of universities…”

Is that a fair characterisation? FactCheck takes a look.

How much are vice chancellors paid?

The latest figures from Times Higher Education show that the average salary of a university vice chancellor in 2015-16 was £246,149. When you include pensions and other benefits (e.g. bonuses), that figure rises to £280,877 a year.

That’s nearly six times as much as the average lecturer earned in the same year (just over £49,000). It’s nearly nine times the salary of the average clerical or technical employee in a UK university, who can expect to earn just under £32,000 a year.

In 2015-16, the University of Southampton spent more on its vice chancellors than any of the 134 institutions that provided data to the Times Higher Education study.

It had two vice chancellors over the course of the year, paying them a combined total of £643,000, including pensions and other benefits. The average academic working at the university in that year would have been paid just under £49,000.

The lowest paid vice chancellor in that year was the head of Writtle College, who took home a combined package of £136,000 in 2015-16.

Are universities getting value for money out of their vice chancellors?

The gap between the lowest and highest paid university bosses is over £500,000. But exactly how vice chancellors’ pay is set remains something of a mystery.

In fact, the Committee of University Chairs has recently been forced to propose new guidelines to improve transparency after a series of critical headlines about the high pay of some vice chancellors.

In the absence of detailed information on how each boss’s pay is set, we’ve analysed the information that is already available across the sector.

The National Student Survey (NSS) asks undergraduates in their final year for their views on a range of issues, including teaching standards and the availability of resources. We compared each institution’s NSS score with how much the vice chancellor was paid in the same year.

It’s possible that in individual institutions, NSS results are used as a measure of the vice chancellor’s performance and may form part of salary calculations.

But from what we can tell, across the sector as a whole, there’s no correlation between how much the vice chancellor is paid and students’ satisfaction with university.

It’s worth saying that 12 of the UK’s most prestigious institutions, including Oxford, Cambridge and Manchester, didn’t take part in the NSS in protest over the government’s plans to use the results as part of the controversial Teaching Excellence Framework. These universities are not included in our analysis.

It’s also not clear that there’s a link between vice chancellors’ pay and universities’ league table rankings. For example, Southampton University topped the list of vice chancellors’ pay, but ranks 26th in the Complete University Guide league tables.

And just three of the top 10 highest paid vice chancellors are in charge of top-10 universities.

How are universities spending the extra income from tuition fees?

Lord Adonis and others have criticised universities in England in particular for, in their view, spending their additional tuition fee income unwisely.

In 2012-13, student fees tripled to £9,000 a year. In that year, universities’ total income from tuition fees rose by 20 per cent, according to figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA).

But the total amount spent on staff rose by just 4.3 per cent in that year. Our analysis of HESA figures shows that while income from tuition fees has risen in every year since the higher fees were introduced, only a fraction of that is passed on to staff. Indeed, in 2015-16, total spending on staff actually decreased by 0.5 per cent.

And remember, that’s the total expenditure on all staff across all universities – including vice chancellors and senior managers.

According to the Universities and Colleges Union, “rank and file” staff have seen their pay held down, with cash-terms pay rising by 1 per cent in 2013, 2 per cent in 2014, 1 per cent in 2015 and 1.1 per cent in 2016.

Analysis from Times Higher Education found that “the pay of academic staff as a whole saw a real-terms fall in every year from 2010-11 to 2015-16.”

It’s also possible that increases in total staff spending are the result of simply hiring more people, rather than giving existing workers a pay rise.

Has there been an “explosion of the management cadre” in universities?

That was another claim from Lord Adonis.

Data from Times Higher Education shows that in 2015-16, UK universities spent a total of £233 million on “key management staff personnel costs” – an increase of 5.1 per cent on the previous year.

But we don’t have complete figures on the total number of senior managers employed across the sector. Nor do we have data from before 2013-14, which could help us judge the effect of tuition fee rises on management costs.

It’s true that non-academic staff outnumber academics, but the gap is closing.

And it’s also worth noting that many of those workers who are counted in the non-academic category will include clerical and administrative staff. We can’t imagine that this group was what Lord Adonis had in mind when he spoke of “bloated” university management.

FactCheck verdict

We know that:

  • University vice chancellors get paid nearly six times as much as rank and file academic staff on average.
  • There’s no sector-wide correlation between how much a vice chancellor gets paid and their institution’s performance on the National Student Survey.
  • Universities have seen significant funding boosts from tuition fees, only a fraction of which has been passed on to staff.
  • Average academic salaries have fallen in real terms since 2010-11, like much of the public sector.
  • The average university now spends around £1.4 million a year on “senior management personnel costs.”

But there’s not enough conclusive evidence on the following:

  • Whether vice chancellors’ pay has risen as a direct result of tuition fees.
  • Exactly how vice chancellors’ pay is set.
  • Whether the number of university managers has risen as a result of tuition fee rises.