OFFICIALS at a North-East university have defended a £21,000 a year pay rise for its vice-chancellor.

Durham University - along with other top UK universities which handed vice-chancellors an average pay rise of more than £10,000 - have been criticised by unions.

One union leader said the figures, which mean the average vice-chancellor at an elite Russell Group university will now earn almost £280,000,  showed "a lack of self-awareness" from university leaders.

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But the Russell Group argued its universities contribute tens of billions of pounds to the UK economy and that "first-rate leadership and academic talent are crucial if our universities are to continue to excel in a challenging economic climate".

One of the highest pay rises went to Christopher Higgins, vice chancellor of Durham University, who saw his pay rise £21,000 to £232,000.

Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union (UCU), said: "Staff are rightly tired of the hypocrisy from vice-chancellors when it comes to pay and pensions. One rule for upstairs and another for downstairs seems to be the order of the day.

"The lack of self-awareness from university leaders when it comes to their own perks is an embarrassment for the sector and insulting to the staff within it who work so hard."

Robert Gillespie, chairman of Durham University Council, said: "Compensation levels for senior employees are determined by the remuneration committee of University Council which believes that competitive salary packages are essential to attract and retain outstanding individuals in an international market for talent.

"Under the present vice-chancellor's leadership, Durham has achieved UK top five and a world top 100 university status, membership of the Russell Group of universities and has shown greatly improved performance in research, education and the national student survey."