Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Strathclyde universities are lending their reputations to the UHI Millennium Institute's bid to fast-track its application to become a university.
UHI, a unique partnership of 13 colleges and research institutions, has set itself a 2007 target for becoming the University of the Highlands and Islands.
It already meets university criteria on student numbers and subject breadth, but Scottish institutions must also have a record in research.
A key prerequisite for the university title is degree-awarding powers, normally won in two stages - taught degrees followed by research degrees.
UHI has just applied to the Privy Council for the right to award its own undergraduate degrees and is about to undergo a year of scrutiny.
But in a unique back-to-front move, the three universities are set to vouch for UHI's research potential once it gains degree-awarding powers, allowing it to apply for the university title before gaining the right to award postgraduate degrees. The Scottish Higher Education Funding Council and the Scottish Executive have approved the move.
James Fraser, UHI's secretary, said the conventional route to university status would take years.
"The authority and prestige of the three universities are being substituted for time. UHI already has some research strength and we will build on that with the help of the three universities."
He welcomed the need to meet research criteria.
"We're very committed to the economic regeneration of the region and accept that a teaching-only university in the north of Scotland would be second best," he said.
Most UHI degrees are awarded through the Open University Validation Service, and UHI as about 60 PhD students. Some 75 of its 500 academics are research-active through the research assessment exercise, with environmental science rated 4 in the last RAE. Other staff are involved in non-RAE research and consultancy.
Further development of UHI research may include sending staff to the partner universities to complete PhDs. UHI already undertakes collaborative research with the three universities, including a project with Aberdeen on decommissioning the Dounreay nuclear research reactor. But Edinburgh's secretary, Melvyn Cornish, said the partners would go beyond these areas to ensure that UHI had appropriate research structures giving it the right to the university title.
The universities will each have a seat on UHI's board of governors and appoint members to its academic council and research committee.
Mr Cornish stressed that there would be no rubber-stamping of the bid. "If [the three partners] had any significant doubts, we would be very cautious because we're attaching our names to it," he said.