The Welsh have taken a step towards the creation of a single federal "super university" for the principality.
New proposals for mergers and strategic alliances were this week submitted by institutions to meet an October 31 deadline for bids for a share of £3 million earmarked by the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales for "reconfiguration" in the sector.
The Welsh Assembly has said that future increases in higher education funding will be on condition of evidence that formal strategic alliances and/or mergers are being created to ensure that the sector is efficient and effective.
The proposals follow moves to offer full University of Wales membership to all Welsh higher education institutions.
According to Tony Chapman, principal of the University of Wales Institute Cardiff and chairman of Higher Education Wales, which represents Welsh vice-chancellors and principals, the changes reflect growing support for the creation of a single federal university for Wales.
"If we are all awarding University of Wales degrees within the same framework, collaboration will be that much easier. People are more wedded to the idea of a one-nation, one-university model. I'd like to believe that we are driving towards that concept," he said.
Partnership plans submitted this week will unite the sector and strengthen the provision on offer and research capacity of collaborating institutions, funding council heads believe.
Plans include a possible merger between Cardiff University and the University of Wales College of Medicine and between Bangor University and North East Wales Institute of Higher Education, as well as strategic alliances between other institutions.
Phil Gummett, the funding council's head of higher education, said: "It's a complex matrix of relationships that is being proposed. It's not just a question of saving money; it's also what could be done better by working together.
"We have already said that if there was a position where all the institutions operated within the University of Wales, then that would facilitate collaboration."
The University of Glamorgan is the only institution that has not yet decided to join the federal University of Wales. Les Hobson, its deputy vice-chancellor, said the issue had yet to be discussed by Glamorgan's board of governors.
"These are still the early stages of what I believe will be a continuously changing arena. There are many factors that may influence our decision," he said.
Lecturing union leaders have written to the Welsh Assembly's education minister, Jane Davidson, expressing concern that their members have not been consulted on any of the proposals for merger or collaboration.
Barry Johnson, Association of University Teachers' assistant general secretary for Wales, said: "It is all very well civil servants in Cardiff moving things around on the map, but they have to consider the full implications. We want full consultation to ensure that the views of staff are considered."
* The Welsh Assembly has announced an extra £9 million for further education lecturers and support staff pay with the aim of securing a common pay scale with schoolteachers by 2004.
The move, which will provide across-the-board pay rises of about 3 per cent, has led to calls from union leaders for ministers to follow suit in England, where further education lecturers are planning to strike over pay next week.