The Government has refused to rule out vetoing universities' decisions about the level at which they join a £200 million scheme to match philanthropic donations with public funds.
Institutions will have to choose between three tiers. In the first tier, the Government will match donations pound for pound, but only up to a maximum level. In the second, it will pay £1 for every £2 raised by the institution, and in the third tier, it will pay £1 for every £3 raised.
Limits have not yet been set, although the Government has indicated that the lowest tier's limit could be in the region of £500,000 and the highest as much as £5 million.
However, some observers fear that too many institutions may opt for the top tier, causing problems for a scheme with pot of just £200 million over three years.
Philip Nye of the Higher Education Directorate warned that the Government reserved the right to reject institutions' decisions.
"If what institutions are proposing is miles away from what they have achieved in the past, we will ask if they are being realistic," he said.
"We would be reluctant to veto preferences, but have been careful not to rule out the possibility. Ministers have been absolutely clear that most of the money is intended for most universities in the middle tier."
Speaking at a Times Higher Education conference on fundraising, Mr Nye said the scheme, due to start in August, would be reviewed after two years. During the review, universities failing to meet fundraising expectations could reconsider the tier they are in. However, he warned that movement between tiers would be possible only if the books could be balanced with like-for-like movement between brackets.
Eric Thomas, vice-chancellor of the University of Bristol, advised conference delegates to take a "gimlet-eyed view" when choosing their tier, predicting that "tier two will get most people the most money".
'SPATCHCOCKED' V-C LEADS BY 'PAINFUL' EXAMPLE
Vice-chancellors have been told they cannot be credible fundraisers unless they have given a "painful" sum of money to their university themselves.
Eric Thomas, vice-chancellor of the University of Bristol, revealed that he had been "spatchcocked" by his own staff, who tapped him for £10,000 over a boozy dinner.
He said: "I went to a lecture that was preceded by an hour and a half of wine and canapes, with another hour and a half of wine and canapes before dinner.
"I was talking to my deputy director of development, and my recollection was that I said: 'I think it's important that I give a significant gift.'
"The next day a handwritten letter appeared on my desk saying, 'Thank you for your generous gift of £10,000.' I was spatchcocked - not that I mind being spatchcocked," he said.
Speaking at a Times Higher Education conference on fundraising last week, Professor Thomas said the role of the vice-chancellor had been fundamentally changed by the increasing importance of raising money.
He added: "If you are going to give a significant gift, you had better discuss it with your partner. Fortunately, I am still married."