The gap between pay for principals and rank-and-file staff continued to grow last year as six college leaders broke the pound;200,000-a-year barrier, while teaching staff continued to bear the brunt of the 25 per cent cuts to the adult education budget expected by the end of this Parliament.
Colleges have already cut pound;88 million from their total staffing costs, according to the Skills Funding Agency's 2011 accounts. Meanwhile, principals received an average pay rise of pound;4,000, or 2.5 per cent. Unions for college leaders argue that principals are being paid for growing job insecurity and increased responsibility, but even they acknowledged the concerns of rank-and-file staff.
The highest paid principal was once again Jackie Fisher, chief executive of the Newcastle College Group. Her salary and benefits totalled pound;234,000. The sum is less than she earned the previous year, however, when her total pay was inflated by a pound;54,000 retention bonus.
Some of the top earners' salaries were frozen, while others increased by 10 per cent or more. In general, the leaders of large, expanding colleges received the biggest pay rises. The gap between the salaries among the top 25 per cent of principals and the bottom quarter increased by another pound;5,500, to more than pound;65,000.
Martin Ward, deputy general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said that higher pay was being driven by the merger of colleges into larger institutions, with more responsibility for the principal. "Clearly there are now fewer principals in the system than there were a few years ago. They may be getting paid more because they are running larger colleges," Mr Ward said.
He suggested that principals' pay costs less in total today than it did 10 years ago. This turns out, in fact, to be reasonably accurate if figures are based on an estimate from the University and College Union (UCU) that the average principal salary 10 years ago was pound;76,000. Using that number, the principals of 2001 - excluding sixth-form colleges - would cost around pound;29.7 million in today's prices. The total salaries of principals last year came to pound;31.7 million.
Nevertheless, the pay for individual principals has risen 25 per cent above inflation over that time, while staff salaries have barely held up in real terms. Being able to compete in a national labour market where skilled leaders are believed to be in short supply gives principals an advantage in negotiations, Mr Ward said. Increasing numbers of retirements and the reluctance of some deputies to take on the top job are making recruitment competitive.
However, there is evidence that when some governing bodies recruit a new principal, they reduce the salary offered, rather than raising it to compete. At Sussex Downs College in 2009-10, former principal John Blake had built his salary up to pound;188,000 after 16 years in the job. His successor, Melanie Hunt, earns pound;28,000 less.
But as most colleges have yet to implement the bulk of their budget cuts - just 3 per cent of the 25 per cent reductions have so far been made - the growing gap between the pay of lecturers and senior staff is likely to inspire more bitter opposition.
"I can well understand why staff are upset if people who earn the most in colleges are also getting percentage pay rises," Mr Ward said. "It's very easy to see why they would be concerned."
The UCU said that this year staff not only faced their salaries being eroded by below-inflation pay deals, as happened last year, but in some cases absolute reductions in pay. At City of Sunderland College, for example, 36 jobs are set to go and managers are also reviewing the job descriptions of all teaching staff, with the union saying they face lower- paid "instructor" roles. The principal's pay did not increase last year, however.
"It's really demotivating for the rest of staff - who are being asked to work longer hours, with small pay rises or real cuts to pay - when they look at the principal continuing to have pay rises," said Barry Lovejoy, head of FE for UCU.
"It beggars belief that we are seeing pay rises of thousands of pounds for principals at a time when we are seeing other jobs getting real pay cuts. It's extremely generous, given that over the last six or seven years we've already seen the gap widen between them and their staff."
Original headline: Pay gulf widens as six principals break pound;200K-a-year barrier