Wild differences between sectors
The chief executive of an NHS Trust, in charge of a hospital, would get around pound;126,000, with responsibility for an average of 2,247 staff. The salary for the commander of a typical police division ranges from pound;46,038 to pound;57,150. Typically, a division would employ 500 people.
The latest figures put the average university vice-chancellor's pay at pound;104,000, and the average secondary head's on pound;44,870 (March 1999).
While such statistics will play to the natural curiosity of principals, Ken Clarke, chief executive of the Association of Principals of Colleges, says it is difficult to compare the value of managers in different areas of public life, each with its own expertise and employment market.
A hospital chief executive presides over a much larger budget, with far more staff under his or her control than a principal, although equally a principal's management responsibility extends far beyond those on the college payroll.
Students, unlike hospital patients, Mr Clarke argues, are more than passive recipients of a service - they are effectively under the direction of their lecturers, falling under the overall management responsibility of the principal.
"While this is true, hospitals could argue that they deal with life and death, which we don't in colleges," he said.
"One of the differences though is that budgets are not set to take account of principals' pay in the way they are in other sectors.
"There may be a big gap between what a college would like to pay a principal and what they can afford. But this is not just a problem for principals. It is a problem right across he board, for lecturers as well."
It is even more difficult to make comparisons with private-sector pay, which is much less structured and dependent on the supply and demand of expertise in widely-varying industries. But the notion that captains of commerce are lining their pockets with vast annual pay rises is misleading, claims the Institute of Directors.
The institute's pay survey of its own members shows pay rises, including bonuses, at an average 4.5 per cent for two years running, a trend that is expected to continue this year.
The median basic pay for a general manager is pound;44,887, according to The Reward Group, a leading pay survey organisation. The median for a warehouse manager is pound;25,880. The department head of a surveying business would expect to get around pound;38,614, and a company secretary pound;46,748.
The National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education feels that the increased professionalisation of lecturers, with the introduction of qualifications for FE teaching, will increase the value of the profession generally, with a knock-on effect for those who progress to become principals.
A spokesman for NATFHE said: "For a long time we have been seen as the Cinderella service compared with other FE sectors, and comparisons, not just with schools but with some other parts of the public and private sector, reinforce this."
With the introduction of the Learning and Skills Councils, the value of colleges will increasingly be measured in terms of the contribution they make to the local economy.
Principals who feel undervalued within the public sector will be hoping that business, with its tightening grip on FE, will want to reward them more generously in the future.