Bequests to the University of Edinburgh topped £4 million from some 30 legacies last year, and such donations are expected to make up 12 per cent of Edinburgh's ambitious £350 million fundraising campaign.
Among this year's bequests was one from Albert McKern, an Edinburgh graduate who left $11 million (£5.7 million) to be divided among the three universities where he had studied - Edinburgh, Sydney and Yale.
Dr McKern set up a medical practice in the 1930s in what was then Western Malaya. In the Second World War, he was captured by the Japanese and interned. But shortly before his death in a prisoner-of-war camp, he wrote a will stating that once his last family beneficiary died, his estate should be divided between the three universities. Last month, the institutions got an equal share of his $11 million legacy.
The sums may rarely be so substantial, but universities are becoming increasingly aware of the key role of legacies in fundraising.
A growing number of institutions have dedicated legacy officers, such as Edinburgh's Joanne Finnie who points out that the value of estates has risen dramatically in line with property values.
Small gifts are as important as large ones. Karen Hart, The Open University's legacy officer, said: "We have more than 20,000 alumni who are over the age of 70. If a proportion of them left a small amount each, that could make a real difference."
Laura Serratrice, planned giving manager at the University of Bristol, said that legacy income now accounted for at least half its annual fundraising.
Higher education lags behind traditional charities in focusing on legacies, she said, but universities have a ready-made audience through their graduate databases. She recently set up an online higher education legacy fundraising group to allow staff to share expertise.
And while legacies are most likely to come from people in their seventies and older, she stressed that universities that do not yet have a cohort of elderly alumni are also well placed.
Research shows that people who are in their later forties and fifties are much more likely to change their will than those over 70.
"The message I try to put out is that absolutely anyone can leave a legacy. You don't have to be a millionaire, or disinherit your family or friends or dog," Ms Serratrice said.
People might fear that establishing a legacy will constrain them financially, but legacy officers suggest leaving a percentage of the estate rather than a specific sum.
"People may be cash poor but asset rich," said Ms Serratrice.
But how to raise the delicate matter of mortality?
Ms Hart said the OU's student and alumni magazines always feature a legacy story to highlight the concept. There is also some direct mailing to possible benefactors, but she described that approach as "very soft".
Universities are also promoting giving through an increasing number of exclusive events for legators, thanking them during their lifetime. At the OU, these include tours of its Milton Keynes headquarters, which few of the distance-learning graduates have seen.
Edinburgh has 1,000 members in its Carlyle Circle, whose social gatherings also showcase the university.
Its chairman, graduate Michael Cross, believes universities have an extra advantage compared with charities, in that charities respond to particular problems, while universities aim to solve the problems. A number of legators have no personal link with Edinburgh but have been impressed by its work, he said.
But the majority of university legators are alumni, who recognise the benefit they have had from their education.
Legacy officers always prefer to know in advance what the legator is planning, to avoid subsequent difficulties. They prefer unrestricted gifts that can be directed to areas of greatest need at the time, but some bequests cite subjects or departments that no longer exist, obliging universities to try to vary the conditions.
Ms Hart said: "You need to be mindful that the legacy isn't so specific that it makes it unspendable."
Universities report that legators get an enormous buzz out of their generosity. "You're leaving something for a future generation, and there's a sense of pride in that," Ms Hart added.
- The Higher Education Legacy Fundraising group can be contacted through email@example.com
'WE SEE IT AS AN ADVANCE ON OUR DEATH'
Derek and Maureen Moss, who are leaving a legacy to the University of Edinburgh, see nothing morbid about it.
Mr Moss, a former IBM executive, said: "We're all going to die some time. You're not accelerating the process by leaving a legacy. It's better to think now what you want to happen to your money, particularly if, like us, you don't have children."
The couple had no links with Edinburgh: Mr Moss graduated from the University of London in 1953, but at that stage institutions did not keep tabs on their graduates.
After living predominantly in Brussels and Paris, the couple retired to Edinburgh and forged links with the university through their interest in the Royal Scottish Geographical Society. They admit that they had "agonised for years" about what to do with their estate until a friend suggested the university.
"We think the most important thing money can be put towards is education," Mr Moss said.
The couple's legacy will provide postgraduate scholarships for students who could not otherwise afford to continue their studies.
Mr Moss said he and his wife had built up a relationship with the university and had developed a confidence in it through meeting staff and students.
They have already funded a number of scholarships.
"We see it, if you like, as an advance on our death," Mr Moss said.