SCOTTISH universities have seen a sharp rise in the amount of money they generate through philanthropic giving from graduates and businesses.

New figures show the sector's income from donations topped £55 million in 2014/15 after a rise of 42 per cent on the previous year.

The figures also show the number of individual donors to Scottish institutions rose by more than 1,000 over the same period from 18,000 to 19,150.

However, only a tiny proportion of graduates make donations despite significant investment from universities with fewer than one per cent giving a contribution.

Universities welcomed the increase, but highlighted the fact the contribution from donations represents a fraction of the overall income generated by the sector of more than three billion.

A spokeswoman for Universities Scotland, which represents university principals, said: "Philanthropic donations to universities can be life-changing for individuals as they often go towards student scholarships and important research work including studies into the biggest health problems of our times.

"It is encouraging to see the number of donors to universities, including from their alumni, increase and to see the income generated from philanthropy increase this year.

"Whilst this source of funding can make a major difference to the outcomes that universities can offer, it is not reliable in the same way as core teaching and research grants and can never be a substitute for Government investment."

While it is routine in America for former students to give money after they have graduated in recognition of the benefits of their education, the practice is far less popular in the UK.

Leading Scottish universities such as Aberdeen, St Andrews and Edinburgh have all embarked on major international campaigns to raise money through donations in recent years, but the money generated is still far less than that received through public means.

Philanthropic donations are often given in support of specific projects, such as author JK Rowling's donation to a Regenerative Neurology Clinic at Edinburgh University and Ann Gloag's donation to a Glasgow Caledonian University foundation supporting female entrepreneurs from disadvantaged communities.

The poll, by fundraising organisation the Ross Group and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE), found there were 23,000 donors to Scottish universities.

John Middleton, executive director of CASE Europe, said: “University fundraising is based on the development of long term multi-layered relationships – particularly with alumni – as well as targeted approaches to trusts and foundations.

“That the rate of increase in new funds and pledges secured across the UK is outstripping that of donor numbers indicates the value of these relationships and the results demonstrate a healthy performance based on increased investment.

"However, there is considerable variation between universities, with clear leaders in the field and a cluster of institutions who started their development and alumni relations programmes relatively late in the day and are catching up.”