More universities than expected have opted for a "high-risk, high-return" approach to a £200 million Government scheme to encourage fundraising in the sector.
Some 40 institutions have decided to adopt the most ambitious approach available under the scheme, which will match philanthropic gifts to universities with public funds at varying levels, depending on the scale of intended fundraising activity.
But the surprisingly large number in the higher-risk category has raised concerns that the total funding under the scheme will be spread more thinly than intended, and some institutions may fail to hit targets.
The Higher Education Funding Council for England has confirmed that 129 institutions are taking part in the three-year scheme.
Institutions will receive matched funding according to a "tier" they have opted to join, based on how much they believe they can raise.
Some 33 universities and 29 further education colleges have opted to join the bottom tier. They will have the amount they raise matched pound for pound by the Government up to a maximum of £200,000 per institution. In the middle tier, which 56 universities have joined, institutions will receive £1 of public funds for every £2 they can raise, up to a cap of £1.35 million per institution.
In the top tier, with 40 participating universities, institutions will receive £1 for every £3 they raise, up to a cap of £2.75 million.
The large number of institutions opting for the most ambitious tier has meant that its cap is significantly less than the £5 million limit originally mooted.
"I don't think anyone would have predicted as many as 40 (in the top tier)... I think we should take it as a sign of the gathering ambition and confidence of the sector," said Joanna Motion, from the Council for Advancement and Support of Education, which provides training in fundraising to universities.
Mary Blair, director of development at the London School of Economics and a member of the informal Ross Group of top fundraising institutions, warned that some of the universities without a "track record" of fundraising who have chosen the top tier may find it tough to raise enough funds to make the choice worthwhile.
"If an institution makes a bad guess and locks itself into 1:3, it could end up losing money," she said.
She added that Hefce did not want any money unspent and that if some institutions did not make their targets the extra money would be redistributed. Details of how this will take place are not yet clear.
Hefce has refused to list the institutions included in each of the tiers, but it is understood that the top tier contains some institutions that have not had a strong tradition of fundraising. Times Higher Education has learned that the University of the Arts London has opted for the top tier (see box, left).
Institutions may move up to a higher tier in the second year of the scheme but are not allowed to move down. Funds raised that are eligible for matching include cash gifts, share gifts and gifts from charities and foundations whose income is less than £60 million a year.
The universities of Oxford and Cambridge, which are in the top tier, will receive matched funding only for new gifts.
University of the Arts London: High time to support the nurturers of talent
Lynette Brooks, head of development at the University of the Arts London, admits that it is out of the ordinary to find her institution in the top tier of a new government funding scheme designed to encourage philanthropic giving.
"It may not be expected... but the university sees it as a major opportunity to engage existing friends and new friends in supporting arts education in the UK," she said.
The university has to raise a considerable sum of money on top of its target baseline of several million pounds a year to make its high-risk, high-return strategy pay off, but Ms Brooks believes it is up to the challenge.
"We have a good track record of fundraising and we will build on that. We want not only to meet the match, but to exceed it," she said.
The university's approach will be based largely on engaging patrons of the arts and supporters of emerging artists who perhaps "haven't thought about education among their philanthropic priorities before".
"There are so many supporters of the arts, but (what about) supporting the institutions that are creating or nurturing the talent that is filling our museums and galleries and designing the buildings and products we use?"
An annual fund for the university was launched for the first time earlier this year, and the university will soon be starting to take its message to prospective major donors and alumni.
One project that Ms Brooks hopes will elicit a generous response is a major capital development to move Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, one of its constituent colleges, to the King's Cross area of London for 2011.
Although other institutions may be surprised that non-traditional universities are aiming high, Ms Brooks said that supporting educational institutions with strong track records is important, "but it is almost more important to support the institutions that aim to achieve that (same strong track record)".