It "may take a financial crisis" to get the British public to embrace a culture of giving to universities, according to an analysis of higher education fundraising in the US and UK.
The study by Eve Proper, institute co-ordinator at the Peabody College of Education and Human Development at Vanderbilt University, Nashville, suggests that the problem facing UK universities "is the fundamental nature of UK voluntary giving - generosity aimed at causes outside of one's personal interest, combined with declining giving levels".
In a paper in the Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, she says: "With higher tax burdens than US citizens, is it really reasonable to expect the British layman to understand why domestic causes cannot be fully funded from government coffers?
"Is it possible that voluntary giving to higher education will not increase substantially until the public can see the results of years of declining government funding? It may take a financial crisis before real increases in voluntary giving occur."
The warning comes as a new "grow your own" scheme is launched that will tackle the reliance of British universities on North American fundraising staff.
The three-year graduate training programme for higher education fundraisers involves a dozen universities, including some with the most ambitious fundraising targets in the UK.
Among those participating are the universities of Bristol, Oxford, Manchester, Newcastle and Loughborough and University College London.
The scheme has been set up by the Council for Advancement and Support of Education and is supported by the Government's match-funding scheme.
Joanna Motion, the council's vice-president for international operations, said: "The aim is to develop high-calibre fundraising professionals in the sector; in a sense to grow our own fundraisers specific to the sector."
In her paper, Ms Proper says that, having adopted a US model for fundraising, the UK has in the past been forced to look across the Atlantic for staff.
"An all-American staff poses its own difficulties, however. The fundraisers face a cultural adjustment and a learning curve, and donors may prefer to be cultivated and asked to give by other Britons rather than by foreigners," she says.
The paper also identifies other practical obstacles that stand in the way of a smooth expansion of fundraising activity - the current dire state of the world's economies notwithstanding. These include legal, tax and cultural issues.
"A trite adage of fundraising is that the best way to get a gift is to ask for one ... But asking can only go so far without a willingness to give," the paper says.
"Some observers have suggested implementing US-style tax advantages (to giving), yet the Millennium Gift Aid programme was a failure, and other attempts to increase giving by payroll and covenant have met tepid responses."
CULTURE OF GIVING IS TAKING ROOT, UUK SAYS
The progress made by UK universities in developing professional alumni relations offices and increasing income from voluntary giving is highlighted in a new report.
Gifts that Grow, a pamphlet published by Universities UK, charts the successes in the sector, as well as acknowledging the importance of this income stream now that the economic crisis is tightening government purse strings.
Rick Trainor, president of Universities UK and principal of King's College London, said that "through universities' hard work and incentives by the Government, the culture of giving is taking off here as it has done in the US".