A pay increase of more than 40 per cent in a year has catapulted West Nottinghamshire College principal Asha Khemka into the position of highest-earning college leader.
With a salary of pound;197,000 in 200809, she edged ahead of the former top earner, Newcastle College's Jackie Fisher, by just pound;1,000.
Average principal pay rose by 5.7 per cent between 200708 and 200809, according to FE Focus's analysis of college accounts.
The University and College Union (UCU) said that salaries had risen more than twice as fast as lecturers' wages over eight years. But West Nottinghamshire governors said Mrs Khemka was worth the pay rise.
Jean Hardy, chair of governors at the college, said: "Under Asha's leadership we've grown to become one of the largest and best-performing colleges in the sector. She was instrumental in us achieving our `outstanding' Ofsted status and our turnover has increased by almost 50 per cent."
College accounts stretching back eight years show the gap between the lowest- and highest-paid principals is also increasing. In 2002, the bottom 25 per cent earned pound;37,000 less than the top quartile. Last year, the gap rose to pound;60,000.
The pay divide is accompanied by a similar gap in college income, suggesting it is driven partly by the emergence of large "super-colleges". The top five institutions have a combined income almost equal to the bottom 80.
Other high earners, such as Barnfield College principal Pete Birkett, who is paid pound;184,000 according to the accounts, lead federations with responsibility for other institutions.
The latest accounts for 200809 also reveal how much colleges are willing to pay to get out of trouble: City College Birmingham paid former Association of Colleges' chief executive David Gibson pound;186,000 in consultancy fees as interim principal, plus pound;33,000 in VAT, to turn them around after a failing Ofsted grade.
New principal Stuart Cutforth said: "Ofsted's recent monitoring visit shows that he did a magnificent job - demonstrating reasonable progress in all areas. We also enjoyed the best enrolment performance for many years, along with improved retention."
And the relatively small Weston College pays principal Paul Phillips pound;179,000 according to the accounts, but it credits him with eliminating "enormous" debts and poor academic performance.
A UCU analysis of pay in general FE colleges since 2001 found salaries for teaching staff had risen from an average of nearly pound;28,000 to more than pound;34,000, but that principals' earnings increased at twice the rate, reaching just under pound;120,000 from less than pound;76,000 eight years earlier.
At tertiary colleges, average principals' pay was pound;113,000, while it was pound;94,000 at sixth-form colleges. The figures also reveal that the number of principals earning over pound;150,000 doubled in a year to 28.
Sally Hunt, UCU general secretary, said colleges needed to justify why principals' pay was rising so much quicker than other staff.
"We believe colleges need to be upfront about why principals are enjoying such bumper rises compared to teaching staff," she said.
"This is especially important now when so many frontline workers are getting real-terms pay cuts and thousands of jobs are at risk."
Highest paid leaders
- West Notts College pound;197k
- Newcastle College pound;196k
- City College, Birmingham pound;186k
- Barnfield College pound;184k
- Chichester College pound;179k
- Weston College pound;174k
- Newham College of FE pound;174k
- South Downs College pound;173k
- Sussex Downs College pound;171k
- The Manchester College pound;170k
*Consultancy fee for interim principal.
Source: LSC College Accounts 200809.