Leeds Metropolitan University and the University of Bradford have signed a strategic alliance that their vice-chancellors hope will provide all the benefits of a merger "without the pain".
It will begin by focusing on joint international student recruitment and delivery of courses overseas. It will quickly progress to joint enrolment of home students and joint delivery of some undergraduate and postgraduate courses in Yorkshire. There will also be research collaboration across a range of disciplines.
Colin Bell, vice-chancellor of Bradford, said: "Bradford is too small, but it is not easy to grow with the current structure and in such a difficult financial climate.
"Everyone is being urged to think about complementarity, and we believe there are many opportunities in growing the two businesses together that we could not take advantage of apart. We will not be dissolving either institution, but we do see the edges between us blurring."
He said that this would be the first post-binary alliance of its kind and that other institutions would be watching closely.
Plans are already under way for the two universities to exchange senior administrative staff. Academic and student exchanges are expected to follow. The Higher Education Funding Council supports the alliance.
Leslie Wagner, LMU vice-chancellor, said the idea was to generate more income rather than to save costs. "At the same time we can offer a wider student experience and give students more choice," he said.
LMU currently has 34,000 students, compared with Bradford's 10,000.
There will be increasing cooperation between overlapping subject areas such as business studies, film studies and leisure and sports management, and students will be able to use both campuses.
"Structurally the two universities have much in common, but we also have cultural differences that will require some careful management," said Professor Wagner.
One of the first tasks of the alliance will be to offer more foundation degree programmes to increase opportunities for students in the region to progress from further to higher education. This will be achieved through partnerships with colleges in Bradford and Harrogate. The North Yorkshire region will also be the target for a range of consultancy services for the business community.
"There is a significant gap in what is being offered in the Harrogate area, where there is currently no higher education provider," said Professor Bell.
"We hope, through our partnership, to be able to offer the business and social communities the resources of both our universities by providing them with career and professional development, technology transfer training and consultancy services."