Universities are joining forces with theatres and galleries to encourage a new wave of "British-style philanthropy" as they take steps to protect themselves from public spending cuts.
Speaking this week before What is British Philanthropy? How Can it Support Higher Education and the Arts?, a conference in London, Joanna Motion, vice-president of the Council for Advancement and Support of Education, said she was a "great believer" in the potential for charitable giving to sustain the sectors through difficult times.
"There are a lot of people who say we don't do this, but in this country and right across Europe there are many examples of universities, colleges and galleries started and sustained by philanthropy," she said. "What we have done in recent years is interrupt that tradition, and we're trying to reconnect with that."
Her comments came as figures published in the Ross-Case survey reveal that charitable income to higher education fell last year as the full effects of the economic downturn were felt. UK universities received £506 million in philanthropic income in 2009-10, down from £526 million the previous year.
However, they secured £600 million in new gifts - including pledges to be met in future years - up 10 per cent year on year. The number of donors also rose, with 185,603 people giving to universities in 2009-10, up by a quarter in two years.
According to the Ross-Case survey, the figures were buoyed by the fact that 2009-10 was the second year of the government's £200 million matched-funding scheme.
The initiative is due to be wound up this summer.
Ms Motion said the drop in cash income did not come as a surprise, but welcomed the rising number of overall givers and future pledges.
"The real question is what happens to income levels this time next year. But I'm quite encouraged by the fact that people are willing to put their heads above the parapet again," she said.
The universities of Oxford and Cambridge secured 50 per cent of the new gifts last year, an increase on their share for 2008-09 (46 per cent).
The distribution of funds already received was also highly skewed. Some 48 per cent went to Oxbridge and a further 23 per cent to the other members of the Russell Group of large research-intensive universities.
Also speaking at the conference, Rory Brooks, founder of MML Capital Partners and a donor to the University of Manchester, was due to say that universities were "among the great assets of Britain and somewhat underappreciated".
"Barely 1 per cent of (contactable) alumni give in any way to universities. That's a large and untapped market," he said.