Two competing Russell Group universities are launching a groundbreaking partnership that will feature joint academic appointments, research, degrees and overseas ventures.
The universities of Birmingham and Nottingham, which collectively have about 67,000 students and 14,000 staff, announced their "framework for collaboration" on 3 February, unveiling a model that they believe could be adopted by other institutions.
In an interview with Times Higher Education, David Eastwood and David Greenaway, the vice-chancellors of Birmingham and Nottingham respectively, said they hoped the partnership - a first for UK higher education - would be driven by academic collaboration.
They said the universities would also work together on entering new international markets and did not rule out the prospect of partnering on developments such as overseas campuses - an area in which Nottingham, with branches in China and Malaysia, has long led the pack.
"It feels to both of us like something nobody's done in quite this form," said Professor Eastwood, a former chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England.
"We would be flattered if people follow suit and I'm sure once it is announced, people will start (asking), 'Is it making a difference?'"
Asked about the partnership's impact on staff, Professor Greenaway said it might not be immediate or in every department, but with time he hoped it would "change what people do".
The key criteria for success, he said, would be "additional collaborations, additional research income, additional visibility in new markets" and the benefits accruing from the institutions' procurement directors working together.
The last point may help to deliver savings through shared services, something the government has long wanted vice-chancellors to pursue.
Professor Eastwood also stated clearly what the partnership is not: "Are we going to merge? No. Are we going to...dissolve our identities into one another? No.
"We are two strong, independent, autonomous universities and we intend to be two even stronger, independent, autonomous universities."
Under the terms of the agreement, academics at Birmingham and Nottingham could work together to develop new research ideas, apply for funding and share equipment. There will also be scope for joint academic appointments, decided by joint committees.
Asked whether there could be job cuts as a result of the deal, Professor Greenaway said the arrangement was "not about changing the size or shape of the workforce".
The partnership will also involve cooperation on teaching and learning, particularly at the postgraduate level, including "jointly awarded degrees".
Will this mean that some students gain degrees bearing both the Birmingham and Nottingham crests? "It happens internationally," Professor Greenaway said. "If it happens internationally, why can't it happen in the UK?"
In terms of overseas strategy, Nottingham is already planning to open a campus in Shanghai, its third foreign branch. Professor Eastwood said Nottingham was "keen to help" ensure that Birmingham students can study at the campuses.
The universities will also cooperate on establishing themselves in new international markets, such as South America.
"In an increasingly competitive international environment, we will still compete to recruit students - it would be naive to suggest otherwise," Professor Eastwood said. "But I don't see any difficulty in us sharing some of the costs."
A joint mission to South America is planned for this summer. There will be "some kind of shared in-country presence and capacity" there, Professor Eastwood said, possibly including a joint recruitment office.
He added that the question the partnership sought to answer was: "In a world where UK universities compete with bigger and better resourced institutions elsewhere, are there interesting things we can do, building on existing collaborations, that will give us individually and jointly a competitive advantage?"