The drop takes the total from very large donations down to the levels of 2006-07 and 2007-08 and is thought to be caused by the drying-up of matched funding from the government.
In 2009-10, £299.4 million was given to universities in donations of more than £1 million, according to The Million Pound Donors Report 2011 by private banking house Coutts. This is a 48 per cent fall on the 2008-09 figure of £575.4 million.
The number of £1 million-plus donors fell from 66 to 43.
Beth Breeze, the author of the report and researcher at the Centre for the Study of Philanthropy, Humanitarianism and Social Justice at the University of Kent, said that the amount fell only "because it was so high before".
She said that the £200 million matched-funding scheme, which ran in England for three years from August 2008, was run on a "first come, first served" basis, since there was a cap on the amount of money that the government would match. She said that many institutions had hit their cap within the first year.
The total for philanthropic income cited in the report does not include government matching.
The total for charitable £1 million-plus donations across all sectors in the UK fell from £1.55 billion in 2008-09 to £1.31 billion in 2009-10. The report blames this on global economic uncertainty. The higher education figure for 2009-10 is similar to the amount brought in by universities in 2006-07 (£296.5 million) and 2007-08 (£313.8 million).
The proportion of all £1 million-plus donations that went to higher education was 23 per cent in 2009-10, down from 37 per cent in 2008-09 but up on 2006-07 (18.3 per cent) and 2007-08 (22 per cent).
Despite the fall from last year, higher education still received substantially more of the big donations than other sectors including international development, health, arts and culture. Only charitable foundations got a bigger share of gifts.
Dr Breeze said that while the universities of Oxford and Cambridge and London institutions took the lion's share of £1 million-plus donations, institutions outside the Russell Group such as the universities of Dundee, Aston and Kent had also attracted very large gifts.
"A few years ago, half the universities didn't have a fundraising office," she said.
Joanna Motion, a partner at fundraising consultancy More Partnership, disagreed over the causes of the drop. She said it was not related to the matched-funding scheme and cited instead a slowdown in money-making events such as company listings and sell-offs that often trigger large donations.