With the government declaring this week that "the years of public sector plenty are over", it is clear that alternative sources of university income will become more important than ever. So the findings of the annual Ross-Case survey will provide some welcome cheer for the sector.
The survey of voluntary giving in the academy reveals that cash income - money received during the year - increased significantly in 2008-09 despite the recession.
The total topped £500 million for the first time - up from £430 million to £511 million - with the ousted Labour government's matched-funding scheme receiving much of the credit.
Peter Agar, director of development and alumni relations at the University of Cambridge and chair of the Ross Group, said that hard work had enabled universities to "sustain" their fundraising despite the financial crisis.
Although new funds secured, including pledges to be paid in future years, fell year on year, the survey attributes this decline to an "unusual" number of large gifts in 2007-08.
Joanna Motion, vice-president of international operations at the Council for Advancement and Support of Education, also blamed the recession for the decline, but added that this was "not peculiar to the UK, and certainly not peculiar to universities".
Mr Agar said that all university fundraising departments had felt the effects of the downturn.
"People who are able to give those five-, six- or seven-figure gifts are being more cautious about making those commitments," he said.
The universities of Oxford and Cambridge remained the largest fundraisers in 2008-09, bringing in 48 per cent of new pledges and 51 per cent of cash income for the sector.
Of the £530 million of new funds secured but not yet received, the Russell Group (excluding Oxbridge) took 25 per cent, followed by the 1994 Group with 7 per cent, Million+ with 3 per cent and the University Alliance with 2 per cent.
Of the £511 million donated and received, the Russell Group (excluding Oxbridge) collected 24 per cent, followed by the 1994 Group with 7 per cent, and Million+ and the University Alliance with 2 per cent each.
The news of the success of universities' fundraising efforts came as CASE launched a national campaign to raise awareness of the role of philanthropy in the higher education sector.