THE big increase in the amount of money donated to Scotland’s universities by former students, philanthropists and businesses is good news. It will mean millions more for some universities at a time when funding for the sector is tight. It is also a reward for many institutions that have been learning how to tap into their alumni and other potential sources of income.

But should we feel comfortable about it? It is routine for students in America to donate money to their alma mater, but in the UK our higher education system has been based on the principle it should be funded from the public purse. Universities are right to ask students and others if they would like to help financially – and the money can be used to fund scholarships or research – but the reality is it can only ever be an add-on to the public funding principle and should never replace government funding.

Another obvious issue with encouraging donations is that some universities will always find it easier than others. Leading universities such as St Andrews and Edinburgh have all embarked on major international campaigns to raise money through donations, but other universities will find it much harder and they should not have to suffer as a result.

The boost in philanthropic giving also does nothing to answer the bigger questions about university funding. Only a few weeks ago, Colin Campbell, the head of policy and planning at Stirling, said the funding squeeze facing Scottish universities threatens their international status and their ability to recruit more students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Universities have reacted to the crisis by cutting where they can – and some have responded with their efforts to raise more money through donations. But the bottom line for universities is that the real cost of teaching students is not being met through government funding and should be. Philanthropy can only ever be an added bonus.