Vice chancellors at more than 120 universities were paid a higher salary than Theresa May last year, with one taking home almost £500,000.

New data from the Office for Students (OfS) shows that 1.5% of staff in the sector received a basic salary of more than £100,000 a year in 2017/18 – up from 1.3% in 2016/17.

The proportion of staff receiving a basic salary of greater than £100,000 fell at 48 providers.

Top 10 highest vice-chancellor basic salaries 2017/18(PA Graphics)

The data looks at the pay of vice chancellors – or an equivalent role – and other senior staff for 2017/18.

According to the figures, the University of Bath was at the top of the list, paying its head of provider a basic salary of £470,000.

However, when other benefits were taken into account this rose to a total remuneration of £492,000.

The University of Cambridge came second with a basic vice chancellor salary of £431,000, and total remuneration of £492,000.

And third spot was taken by the University of Southampton, paying a basic salary of £423,000 and total sum of £442,000.

Altogether, 124 of the 133 universities across England paid their heads more than the £150,000 the Prime Minister earns.

Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of the OfS, said: “It is not for the Office for Students to set a vice chancellor’s pay.

“We understand that running a university is a significant and complex task, and it is right that those who excel in their roles should be well rewarded.

“Despite this, where pay is out of kilter, or salary increases at the top outstrip pay awards to other staff, vice chancellors should be prepared to answer tough questions from their staff, student bodies and the public.

“It is good to see signs of pay restraint at some universities, with some vice chancellors refusing a salary increase.”

She added that institutions receive significant funding, both in the form of direct grants drawn from public taxation as well as funding from student loans.

“Universities – and individual vice chancellors – need to be confident that they can justify the pay that they receive,” said Ms Dandridge.

However, the report was criticised by the University and College Union (UCU), which branded the OfS a “paper tiger”.

The union said the report failed to look at the excessive and arbitrary rises still enjoyed by some vice chancellors, or tackle the expenses and other benefits in kind that have “plagued universities in recent years”.

UCU head of policy Matt Waddup said: “With this lightweight report, the OfS has shown itself to be a paper tiger incapable of stopping the pay and perks scandals that have plagued universities.

“The report simply regurgitates some of the analysis done by UCU and others in recent years, but pulls its punches on how to address the problem.

“The OfS fails to ask why some vice chancellors are still picking up double-digit pay rises and doesn’t even look at their expenses or other benefits in kind.

“This report sends a message that those who accept such largesse have nothing to fear from the new regulator.”

Education Secretary Damian Hinds said: “While universities are autonomous institutions, around 45% of English institutions’ income in 2016/17 came through upfront public funding, so they are rightly subject to public scrutiny.

“Of course salaries need to be competitive, but high pay must be justified by high performance on objectives such as widening participation for disadvantaged groups, low dropout rates, growing export earnings and pioneering innovative research.

“We set up the Office for Students to look out for students’ interests and it is absolutely right that the OfS demands greater transparency from universities by requiring them to justify the pay and benefits of their vice chancellors.

“We have given the OfS powers to take action if universities do not do this and we expect them to be used where necessary.”