The four Catholic universities in French-speaking Belgium will open formal merger talks in September. The aim is to unite the smaller institutions in Brussels, Namur and Mons under the banner of the larger, more prestigious Catholic University of Louvain. The changes are expected to take place over three years and to be completed by 2015 at the latest.
"The partners judge that integration as a single university represents a unique opportunity to increase their international profile, to facilitate access to large European and international research networks and strengthen their engagement in teaching, research and service to society," the universities said this month.
Each institution will continue to offer bachelors degrees. But the second cycle, leading to a masters, and the third, preparing for a PhD, are expected to be rationalised on the basis of each institution's teaching and research strengths.
The Catholic group is one of three "academies" into which Belgium's nine Francophone universities were organised in 2004. These are intended to foster closer collaboration, and merger discussions have taken place in all three, although those in the Catholic group are the first to bear fruit.
This process has been encouraged by the French Community Government, which has been switching funding from universities to the academies, with institutions left to share the funds among themselves.
From 2006-07, the academies have received direct funding for doctoral training, specialist post-masters courses and property investment.
In February, a law was approved that would switch nearly E million (£18 million) a year of research funding to the academies. According to Marie-Dominique Simonet, the Higher Education Minister, her aim is to indirectly encourage the universities to rationalise.
"The increasingly important role played by the academies will push their constituent universities to consider the possibility of mergers," she said.