The Coimbra group of Europe's 39 oldest universities is offering itself as a role model for the European higher education and research areas.
At the close of a three-day meeting in Siena last week, the group declared that it was committed to "ethics as a fundamental dimension in training researchers and the creation of a common European network of doctorates".
Francesco Francioni, professor of international law and international human rights at the European University Institute in Florence, and former rector of the 764-year-old Siena University, said: "Our aim is to use our heritage of tradition and scholarship for the benefit of European education and research, for example, to offer models of best practice."
Representatives of the group see their contribution to the debate on quality assessment as highly relevant to the Bologna process.
Tim Jones, director for international affairs at Bristol University and a member of Coimbra's executive board, said: "Coimbra provides advice and assistance to the European Union Commission and works closely with the European University Association. We are also, clearly, prepared to disseminate our findings to a wider audience, to younger universities outside Coimbra."
The idea of a network of Europe's old universities was first mooted in 1985 at Coimbra University in Portugal and established by charter in 1987.
UK members are Bristol, Cambridge, Edinburgh and Oxford universities. Four of the group are in accession states due to join the EU next month, and two are in Norway and Switzerland.
Sandra Morris of Edinburgh's international office said: "Since Coimbra is seen as a high-powered network in Europe, it can provide examples that other universities can view with interest and may follow."
Piero Tosi, rector of Siena and president of the Italian Rectors Conference, was elected president of Coimbra for 2004-05. He said: "Coimbra is the expression of a heritage of cultural traditions, academic freedom and commitment to research."