DURHAM University has come under fire for spending £1.4m on art including works by Picasso and Andy Warhol while charging students £9,000 a year and paying hundreds of staff less than £7.45 an hour.

The university, one of the top 100 in the world, paid out the stunning seven-figure sum – nearly five times the original budget – for art to adorn its Gateway development, which opened last year including its new £50m Palatine Centre headquarters.

The collection includes works by 20th Century greats such as Pablo Picasso and Andy Warhol, as well as pieces by North-East artists.

Archie Dallas, president of Durham Students’ Union, said the spending was a total disgrace, while trade union Unison said it was utterly appalling and heartless.

In response, the university said developing its art collection was an essential part of the Palatine Centre project and the extra costs were met by savings in the overall budget.

When the Palatine Centre, off Stockton Road, was opened in October, university chiefs hailed the quality of the art on display, but no costs were disclosed.

Since then, student newspaper Palatinate has fought to obtain the figures.

Its Freedom of Information (FOI) request was initially on “security reasons”. University officials said they were worried that announcing the value of the works would increase the risk of them being stolen.

In April last year, thieves broke into the university’s Oriental Museum and stole Chinese artefacts worth about £2m.

An internal review found the FOI refusal was overly cautious.

Because there was strong public interest in knowing how public money was spent, the decision was overturned.

The university said £294,000 was originally budgeted for art but the “marvellous spaces” at the Palatine Centre led to a decision to buy more artworks.

Mr Dallas said: “I can’t believe that the university thinks it’s appropriate to blow that much money on art.

“Art is crucial. But this amount of money could be spent on student facilities, bursaries or, in fact, almost anything more worthwhile. In short, it’s a total disgrace.”

The university said the extra costs were met by savings in the overall programme.

John McDade, of the Unison union, said the university had 555 staff earning less than the living wage of £7.45 an hour.

He said: “It is appalling that Durham University blatantly refuses to treat their lowest paid employees with some dignity... but are able and willing to spend a fortune on works of art.”

The university said the average hourly rate of its lowest paid staff was above the living wage once overtime, shift allowances and other regular supplements were taken into account.

The university said most of the art was freely accessible during normal opening hours and that all items can be seen during free weekly tours.