Leeds Metropolitan University has signed agreements with two local further education colleges, bringing together more than 100,000 students to create what it believes is the biggest post-16 partnership in the country.
The university, which late last year became the first to announce that it would not charge the full £3,000 fee for degree courses, is keen to develop regional partnerships on the model of big US state universities.
Both Bradford College and Park Lane College in Leeds are now associate colleges of the university. Bradford College has about 26,000 learners, Park Lane about 40,000 and Leeds Met has 41,000.
The decision by Bradford College to partner Leeds Met has disappointed Bradford University, which had been in merger talks with the college for 18 months before the plans fell through in 2003. The college has now switched validation of its law and business courses from Bradford to Leeds Met.
Chris Taylor, vice-chancellor of Bradford University, blamed a different approach to quality.
"The college appears to want a more arm's-length stamp of approval of a course rather than a closer working arrangement," he said.
"We do not feel this arrangement maximises the benefit to either institution, or to the learner, or to the city and district," he added.
An institutional audit of Bradford University by the Quality Assurance Agency last year said that Bradford's arrangements with the college were too informal.
But Michele Sutton, the new principal of Bradford College, said: "We are happy to work within a more formal quality regime. The issue for us was more that Bradford University does not teach law, for example, whereas Leeds Met does. We felt that Bradford wanted to take over the courses rather than work in partnership."
A statement from the college said that Leeds Met had "established well-regarded law and business schools and it is evident that there are excellent opportunities for collaboration, synergy and growth in law, business and related subjects".
The statement also stressed that the college shared with Leeds Met the "joint missions of widening participation, inclusion and innovation".
Ms Sutton said: "In Bradford, only 9 per cent of school-leavers progress to higher education, which is low compared with the UK average. These initiatives should improve that progression rate."
Simon Lee, vice-chancellor of Leeds Met, said: "This university's approach to low fees shows how committed we are to access."
He added: "There are lots of different partnership models in the US. The most talked about is the Wisconsin one, with a research-focused university surrounded by community colleges. My view is of a series of equal partners."
Bradford College will remain an associate college of Bradford University, collaborating in a number of areas such as teacher education and engineering. The campuses of the two institutions are next to each other.
Park Lane College will deliver nine foundation degrees to be validated by Leeds Met. These will cover business, sport, public service and tourism.
Tony Longworth, college principal, said: "This is a major step forward for the college. It will allow our students to progress from a one-year top-up to a full degree at Leeds Met."
Both Bradford and Park Lane Colleges are yet to decide what fees to charge their higher education students.
Ms Sutton said: "We want to wait a year before charging our students higher fees to see how the market works out. Leeds Met, with its low charging approach, is sympathetic to this."
Mr Longworth said: "The setting of tuition fees is something we will have to discuss with Leeds Met as part of the new arrangements."