Global partnerships between universities could become so intertwined that they exist under single international "holding companies", a vice-chancellor has suggested.
Nigel Thrift, vice-chancellor of the University of Warwick, said business models in the commercial sector, where two firms merge but retain their own distinct identities, could be applied to the academy.
"There are examples of successful operations ... not agreements, but closer forms of cooperation," he said. "What you start to do is merge some of your operations, such as doing scientific experiments in two places at once. What you could end up with is international holding company mergers along the lines of Air France and KLM.
"They are still obvious brands, but at the same time they share a lot of things - those are the kind of arrangements I could envisage."
Professor Thrift said that such arrangements would not only deliver economies of scale, but also permit universities to share research that might otherwise have been less usefully held by single institutions.
Close formal agreements would also allow the seamless exchange of students without the need to set up foreign campuses, and joint scientific projects would become easier to organise, he said.
Rejecting the notion that UK universities treated internationalisation simply as an opportunity to make money, he insisted that they had a clear mission to widen knowledge.
"What they are trying to do is expand the number of gateways to knowledge - most universities are not-for-profit, so they may be trying to increase income, but that's only one reason for partnerships", he said.
Professor Thrift, who has focused Warwick's international strategy on "very strong links with a select group of international partners", said diversity in such arrangements was crucial. As an example, he cited the links between Warwick's research unit WMG and IIT Kharagpur, a leading scientific research institution in India.
Sir Drummond Bone, former vice-chancellor of the University of Liverpool and an expert on internationalisation, saw the merits of Professor Thrift's vision.
He said that global private providers were already following such a model by building university networks without explicitly rebranding each institution.
Sir Drummond, who now advises Laureate, a private provider with a global portfolio of universities, said: "It is eminently possible - in fact, in practice it has already happened in the private university sector, where you might expect the temptations of brand merger or alignment would be greater.
"It has proved remarkably easy for universities to function under joint ownership with highly distinctive missions and brands. I suspect many of their own students are unaware of their connections in other countries."