The future of the federal University of Wales was in doubt this week as the Welsh Assembly prepared to publish the conclusions of its higher education review.
The university has issued a plea to member institutions and other organisations in Wales to sign a statement of support for its role, which includes awarding degrees.
A covering letter from senior vice-chancellor Derec Llwyd Morgan says there are fears that the higher education review report, due to be published on Tuesday, "might be detrimental to the University of Wales".
The university is nervous following criticism of its operation and structure in evidence submitted to the review, which sources say included claims that it had become "overly bureaucratic, ponderous and the dead hand on innovation and development".
Various reformed higher education structures have been mooted for Wales. Some would mean a diminished role for the university, others would strengthen its position.
Cardiff, riding on a wave of confidence following spectacular research assessment exercise results, is in talks regarding the awarding of its own degrees.
It already has degree-awarding powers, but it has an agreement with the federal university that it must give two years' notice of its intention to use them.
In a statement this week, a Cardiff spokesman said that although the university had not yet decided to seek independence, it had decided "it is prudent to consult with the University of Wales through the agreed procedure to identify and explore all issues and developments that may be associated with such a development".
Cardiff has so far declined to sign the university's statement of support on the grounds that "questions relating to the higher education review and sector in Wales are matters for university policy", although it said the petition would be considered by Cardiff's committees.
According to David Herbert, senior pro vice-chancellor at Swansea University, Cardiff's departure from the federal university would be a "severe blow that would threaten the federal university's existence". Professor Herbert said Swansea had applied for degree-awarding powers "as a safeguard, in case something dramatic happens", but was unlikely to use them if the federal structure remained.
Michael Scott, principal of North East Wales Institute of Higher Education, which is an associate college of the University of Wales, said there were fears that Cardiff's exit could create a domino effect.
"If Cardiff breaks off, then the next question is whether or not other institutions will also go, which would lead to questions about the future of the university itself," he said.
Professor Llwyd Morgan said that the university was concerned about leaked drafts of the review report, which suggests that member institutions should seek degree-awarding powers.
He said a move by Cardiff to become independent would be "a blow, but not a fatal blow" to the university's future, but added that institutions seeking to award their own degrees could be the thin end of the wedge.
The assembly's review report is expected to explore the pros and cons of a range of models for Welsh higher education. One option, a so-called "two-hub" model, would involve the system being organised around a research centre based at Cardiff University and a teaching centre based at Glamorgan. Another, dubbed the "one-nation, one-university" model, would mean expanding the federal university to encompass all higher education provision in Wales.
Sources have suggested, however, that in the face of opposition from institutions outside Cardiff and Glamorgan to the former and from Cardiff and Swansea to the latter, the report will favour a compromise involving rationalising provision within a number of geographical clusters. This could mean mergers between some institutions and closer collaboration between others.
Such a move would be favoured by the funding council. Phil Gummett, the council's head of higher education, said: "One can imagine a restructuring that would allow all institutions that could reasonably achieve it to gain degree-awarding powers. The question is, what would be the role of the University of Wales in relation to that?"