The University of Virginia, troubled by curtailments in government funding and severe inflation, announced yesterday a three-year drive to raise $90 million, the first such fund-raising effort by the Charlottesville institution and one of the largest by any public university in the United States.

"It is apparent that the federal government and our state governments have moved higher education to a lower order of priority," said university President Frank L. Hereford Jr. He described the lagging pace of federal aid for academic research as "alarming."

The university's appeal for funds from corporations, foundations, alumni and other private donors reflects a nationwide trend among public educational institutions, according to specialists. "Over the past few years, we've seen more of the public universities getting into this," said Fred Schnaue, spokesman for the American Association of Fund-Raising Counsel, a New York-based organization of professional fund raisers.

Arthur C. Kammerman, vice president for advertising and public information of the Council for Financial Aid to Education, cited two key factors in the trend. First, he said, state aid to education nationally has not kept pace with inflation. Second, he argued, state aid is usually restricted to specific educational undertakings and not available for numerous other university projects, especially more esoteric or controversial academic research.

The University of Virginia's fund-raising drive apparently is the second largest yet attempted by a public university, according to knowledgeable officials. The University of Illinois is currently seeking $100 million in five years. The benchmark was set by the University of Michigan, which raised $72 million from 1964 to 1967.

In the Washington region, the trend is evident in a recent plan to seek aid from private developers to build a downtown campus for the University of the District of Columbia. The publicly supported Virginia Military Institute in Lexington completed a fund-raising drive last May with $34.5 million. Virginia Polytechnic Institute in Blacksburg is seeking $6 million to help construct a veterinary medicine college and is preparing to launch a broader appeal soon.

These campaigns remain markedly smaller than the fund raisers of some private universities. The biggest, specialists say, was Yale University's 1974-1979 drive, which brought in $372 million. The privately run University of Southern California announced in June it had garnered $309 million over five years.

University finance specialists draw a distinction between annual donations, generally earmarked for day-to-day operating expenses, and the longer capital drives, mainly for construction and long-range academic programs. The University of Virginia's annual drive raised $5.9 million last year.

Rarely has the University of Virginia attempted a major financial campaign and never before has its aim been so broad, officials say. Thomas Jefferson, who founded the university in 1819, is said to have raised $25,000 from private sources. A turn-of-the-century drive reportedly fell short of its $1 million goal. Officials say a 1947 effort also failed to reach its $7.8 million target.

The university announced yesterday it has already gathered $31.5 million toward its three-year goal. The new drive is intended to help finance additional endowed professorships, enlarged scholarship and fellowship programs, construction of new buildings, renovation and more research.

Virginia's state government previously declined to finance several of these projects, including a new library for the university's $200 million rare book collection, according to a university spokesman.

In appealing for contributions, the university cited a number of current problems, including use of temporary trailers to house students and teachers at its McIntire School of Commerce, outmoded and inefficient hospital inpatient facilities, threatened deterioration of historic structures designed by Jefferson, and a low ranking in per capita aid to university law students.

The university, where enrollment more than doubled in the 10 years following 1966 and recently leveled off at 16,400 students, operates on a $303 million annual budget. State aid supplied $67.2 million last year and federal grants and contracts amounted to $40 million, a spokesman said. "We would expect our rate of increase in state and U.S. aid to slow," said Associate Vice President William H. Fishback Jr., citing Reagan administration cutbacks.

The university's endowment amounts to $179.7 million and irrevocable trusts are valued at $46.2 million. The university says its endowment has yielded a 23.5 percent return annually since 1979