Ministers must have known when they established a task force to assess the potential for increasing private donations in higher education that there would be a cost to bear. Although the point of the exercise was to lift some of the burden of funding universities from the taxpayer in the long term, it was always likely that incentives would be necessary to get the process started. Eric Thomas's report duly called for matched funding from the Government and changes in taxation, holding out the prospect of a £600 million boost for higher education if British universities could equal the performance of public universities in the US.
The Government's response this week did as much as was necessary to keep the initiative alive, but no more. All the task force's cost-free recommendations were embraced with enthusiasm, and "pump-priming" matched funding of £7.5 million is promised for a three-year trial period.
But the key proposals for changes in taxation were kicked into the long grass of the Chancellor's "normal Budget process". Only true optimists will expect either a full matched funding scheme or new vehicles for giving, let alone more generous Gift Aid arrangements, to emerge in the foreseeable future. But further inaction would be a missed opportunity for universities and the Government.
The trouble is that the sums involved would soon become very much larger if meaningful concessions were extended to all charities, as they would have to be. The Tories were understandably dismissive of a scheme that amounts to only £8,000 per university per year, but even their own pledge of £500 million a year would be restricted to a few select institutions.
For the higher education system as a whole to benefit, universities with no tradition of alumni appeals obviously need more help than those who already run effective operations.
Sadly, although the response to Professor Thomas's report appears positive, the underlying conclusion seems to be that universities will have to look after themselves. Many are already doing so, but the others will be left behind at a crucial stage if they wait for ministers to make the next move.
There is much they can do without the kind of sophisticated fundraising machinery that is common in US universities: it is still the case that most British alumni have never been approached by their alma mater. It is disappointing, however, that the Government refuses to invest more to help bring about the culture change it wants.