Universities are raising more funds from their alumni than ever before, pulling in a total of £682 million in new gifts in 2007-08.
An annual study of higher education fundraising, the Ross-CASE survey, reveals that gift income increased 54 per cent in the two years from 2005-06 to 2007-08.
It also shows that the universities of Oxford and Cambridge accounted for 47 per cent of the sector's new philanthropic income.
Other institutions in the Russell Group of research-intensive universities also performed strongly, with the group's members pulling in a total of £484 million in 2007-08.
By contrast, the 1994 Group of small research-led universities gathered £48 million. Other mission groups saw rapid rise in gift income, although they secured smaller sums.
The oldest universities, which have the biggest development budgets and the most mature fundraising operations, raised the largest amounts at a lower cost. Overall, the survey found that English institutions secured an average of just under £4.9 million each, with a cash total of £438 million for the year.
This is a 36 per cent increase on 2006-07, with the rest of the 2007-08 total due to be delivered to institutions in future years.
Of the growth in income, only £6 million was accounted for by universities participating in the survey for the first time.
The figures predate the worst of the UK recession, but also predate the Government's £200 million three-year matched funding scheme, designed to encourage giving.
Joanna Motion, vice-president of the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE), said the recession had affected the flow of gifts, but added that the matched funding scheme "means we can go to donors and say there is urgency about giving".
Universities spent £55 million on fundraising in 2007-08, the survey shows, up 34 per cent on the previous year, which is equal to 33 pence for every pound raised. Yet of those surveyed, 29 per cent still did not run a formal fundraising programme.
Sir Duncan Rice, principal of the University of Aberdeen, was positive about future prospects.
"Although we do get occasional drops (in donor income) in recession, trends tend to be up and up."
Ms Motion said universities already had a proven record of success in winning very large gifts, but they could be better at securing sums of between £5,000 and £100,000.
Dean Russell, head of digital marketing at consultancy firm Precedent, added that universities just launching fundraising activities needed to think carefully about strategy.
He said post-1992 institutions should "look to the charity sector to see what they're doing, rather than using tried and tested models for Russell Group universities."