Sir Graeme Davies, principal of Glasgow University, has unveiled plans to link top-rated Scottish physics departments to promote collaborative research.
Sir Graeme, who next month becomes president and vice-chancellor of London University, was speaking at a valedictory business forum marking his retirement after eight years at Glasgow.
In the wake of devolution, each country was free to pursue routes reflecting what their communities wanted, Sir Graeme said. It was clear that the Scottish executive believed universities must carry out both teaching and research, so institutions began thinking how to build critical mass.
"We are working on a number of specialist connected centres of excellence.
One of the first we are looking at is in physics," he said.
This would strategically link the top-rated physics departments in Glasgow, Edinburgh and St Andrews universities, with integrated research programmes and recruitment policies.
"To me, that's the way to go because it's inclusive. It's amazing what you can achieve if you don't mind who gets the credit. That's the spirit of partnership," he said.
Citing the competition for the national e-science centre as an example of such collaboration, Sir Graeme said that it had been assumed that a "golden triangle" institution in England would win. Glasgow and Edinburgh each stood only a 75 per cent chance. But when they got their computer scientists together, they achieved a successful joint bid.
"It gave me immense pleasure to meet an old chum, vice-chancellor of Cambridge, who said: 'You stole that from us.'" Since devolution, Scottish higher education funding has increased ahead of inflation due to the dramatic strengthening of Glasgow's research base, which now brings in more than £100 million a year, "equivalent to £51,000 for every hour of every working day I've been here", Sir Graeme said.