Universities will have to justify the salaries of their highest earners or face fines, in new governmental plans unveiled last week.

Jo Johnson, the Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation, used a speech to the annual Universities UK (UUK) conference to highlight the recent controversy over high salaries in higher education, notably vice-chancellor (VC) pay. Imperial College London is one of the top-paying universities of the Russell Group, with the third-highest number of staff on salaries over £150,000

In the speech, which took place last Thursday, Johnson argued that while universities are “large and complex organisations” that “will be competing for managerial talent in a global market”, they “are generally still charities with a not for profit public service mission”. He said that, regarding VC pay and higher remuneration employees, “finding the right benchmarks is essential”.

Overall, Imperial has one of the highest numbers of highly-remunerated employees in the Russell Group, with 130 employees on a salary of above £150,000 per year. Only Oxford University and University College London have higher numbers, with 149 and 158 employees respectively. The average Russell Group university only has 54 employees on such a high salary, although there is a wide range, with Durham University and the University of York having four employees each.

Last year Professor Alice Gast, the President of Imperial College London, was paid a total of £430,000, including pension contributions and benefits. This is significantly above both the national average of £257,904 per annum, and the Russell Group average of £351,000 per annum. Her salary makes Professor Gast the second-highest paid head of a Russell Group university, behind only Oxford University.

Dr Louise Richardson, the vice-chancellor of Oxford University, has recently been the subject of media scrutiny for her comments on her pay. In a speech at the Times Higher Education world academic summit on the 4th September, she accused “mendacious media and tawdry politicians” of trying to suggest that “vice-chancellors have raided the £9,000 [tuition] fee to enhance their own salaries”. She later compared her salary to that of footballers and bankers, and argued that vice-chancellor pay is high because universities operate “in a global marketplace”.

Her comments came following a period of increased scrutiny around university pay, with Lord Andrew Adonis, a former education minister, calling it a “serious controversy”, and calling for an inquiry in the House of Lords. He cited the 1.1% pay cap in place for non-managerial staff across higher education, which did not apply to vice-chancellors; while the average year-on-year increase, according to recent figures, has been 2.5%, some have seen year-on-year raises of up to 11%. Professor Gast has remained on the same salary for the past two years.

Johnson addressed the recent controversy, referring directly to Richardson in his speech and saying “I don’t want to read about VC pay in the newspapers any more than you do.” He pointed out that universities’ dependence on government funding sets them apart from regular businesses.

A College spokesperson issued the following statement: “Imperial is a world top-ten university, offering the very best in education, science, and innovation. Our success depends on attracting world-class talent, and our remuneration reflects that.”

Johnson outlined a number of proposals that will be enacted by the Office for Students (OfS), which was created earlier this year, including providing justification for staff members paid over £150,000 per annum; universities that do not meet these requirements may face fines.

Johnson also spoke about the need for greater transparency in terms of pay, with universities being required to compile and publish more data on senior staff remuneration. Nicola Dandridge, the Chief Executive of the OfS, who was appointed in July 2017, has already volunteered to take an 18% pay cut, to £165,000 per annum.

Sally Hunt, the general secretary of the University and College Union (UCU), said that “soaring vice-chancellor pay has become a real embarrassment for our higher education sector”, and argued for greater transparency, with “staff and student representatives on remuneration committees, as well as the full minutes of the meetings where leadership pay is decided”.

In the same speech, Johnson spoke about the threat of grade inflation, which he claimed was “tearing through English Higher Education”, citing a threefold increase in the percentage of firsts given since the mid-90s. He said that if such inflation continued unchecked it could “undermine the reputation of the entire UK higher education sector”

Last year Felix revealed that there had been a steady increase in the proportion of students receiving firsts and 2:1s between 2009–2014. Mathematics students had seen a 20% increase in the proportion of students receiving firsts during this time period.