The Million Pound Donors Report 2012 found that 57 donors gave a total of £405 million to higher education institutions in 2010-11.
In 2009-10, just 43 donors contributed £299 million to the sector, although this total represented a fall of nearly 50 per cent from the previous year, thought to be caused by the end of a government scheme to match donations.
The universities of Oxford and Cambridge were the only institutions - including those outside higher education - to receive more than five donations of £1 million or more. The report argues that their long histories appeal to donors wishing to establish a project that will last.
As a destination for million pound donations, higher education remains comfortably ahead of other sectors, receiving a third of the money donated.
In contrast, arts and culture won 8.8 per cent, ahead of international development (8 per cent) and health (3 per cent).
Only charitable foundations received a greater slice of the donations than higher education.
The "enduring popularity" of universities with donors is partly because they are already multi-million pound institutions capable of handling large sums of money, the report explains.
In the mind of donors, giving to university research or scholarship programmes is akin to supporting a health, international development or welfare cause, it adds.
Universities also have professional fundraising offices and a ready-made network of often wealthy alumni, it says.
Overall, the number of million pound donors across all sectors was 232, up from 174 last year.
Yet the total given fell to £1.24 billion, almost a third less in real terms than it was in 2006-7.
The report was researched by Beth Breeze, a researcher in the Centre for the Study of Philanthropy, Humanitarianism and Social Justice at the University of Kent.