A move to a US-style "system university" structure, which stops short of full mergers but links groups of universities under one board of trustees, is being explored in Australia to boost the global standing of its higher education sector.
After a number of alliances were struck between institutions, the University of Canberra and Charles Sturt University in New South Wales say "serious discussions" are under way about setting up a system that would link them, along with technical and further education colleges and schools.
This model, popular in the US, aims to give universities greater clout internationally. Its backers argue that it can widen participation, and that it fits with the Australian Government's calls for greater collaboration.
Stephen Parker, vice-chancellor of Canberra, said that the system approach, or even full mergers, may be the answer to propelling an Australian university into the ranks of the world's top 20 higher education institutions.
He told The Australian newspaper that getting to the top of the world rankings "would require a huge improvement by the leading Group of Eight universities.
"But if you add Melbourne and Monash universities, you would almost get to the level of the University of Tokyo."
Professor Parker said the best example of the systems model was the State University of New York, with 64 affiliated institutions under the governance of one board of trustees.
Under this approach, "the member institutions might retain their current governing or advisory bodies ... but there would be a board of trustees, governors or regents over them", he said.
The trustees would decide what should be taught and where, what research to encourage and how to improve mobility.
He said concerns about the loss of local control would be mitigated by improvements to the scale and reach offered by distance learning, and by staff and student movement within the system.
Ian Goulter, vice-chancellor of Charles Sturt, said systems would help universities cope with a projected decline in school-leavers by aiding widening participation programmes.
He called on the Australian Government to set up a billion-dollar fund to help younger universities move to a collaborative approach.
"A world-class sector with world-class systems doesn't come free of charge. There needs to be funding for transition; some older universities have significant holdings of A$1 billion or so and similar levels of funds need to be available for this system for 2020," he said.