The Government this week announced that £7.5 million in matching funds would be available to help universities establish financial endowments. But it was accused of not doing enough to stimulate fundraising activities.
Details of the scheme are sketchy, but it is expected that the money will be shared among about ten universities that have no fundraising infrastructure rather than spread across the sector. A three-year pilot scheme starts in April.
Universities UK, the vice-chancellor's body, will formulate how the funds should be administered.
The Government first proposed a matching funding scheme in its higher education white paper almost two years ago, but many expected a pledge of hundreds of millions of pounds.
Chris Grayling, Shadow Higher Education Minister, said the Government was spending a trifling amount of money. "By contrast, our proposals allow for £500 million annually of matched funding to build up endowments," he said.
Sir Peter Lampl, chairman of education access charity the Sutton Trust, welcomed this week's announcement but expressed disappointment that the Government was not taking forward recommendations to extend tax relief to university donors or to introduce new vehicles for giving.
"Both of these are available in the US and have done much to foster a culture of giving both to higher education and more widely," he said.
Sir Peter was a member of the Higher Education Endowment Task Force, chaired by Eric Thomas, Bristol University vice-chancellor. This week, the Government was responding to its recommendations, published in May.
The task force urged the Government to make the system for claiming tax relief clearer and also for an extension to the class of gifts that would be eligible for relief.
Professor Thomas said many universities needed help setting up fundraising offices. "American universities are way ahead of us in this regard. It's time the UK caught up, but it won't do so unless experienced professionals - not to mention vice-chancellors - lead the fundraising effort."
The response coincided with research published for the Sutton Trust this week by the Council for Advancement and Support for Education. It found that such schemes had been successful in other countries.
In the US between 2000 and 2003, one scheme brought a 300 per cent return on state investment, raising a total of $363 million (£191 million), of which $6 million came from private sources.