Lecturers could have a single higher education union as early as spring 2006 after the Association of University Teachers and Natfhe agreed a timetable for merger.
A firm proposal to merge could be ready in time for the unions' spring conferences next year, according to the first report from the joint negotiating group set up by the unions to oversee merger.
If agreed by AUT and Natfhe delegates, membership ballots could be held in September and October 2005, with the formal establishment of the new union the following spring.
But even if the spring conferences prove too tight a timescale, then the two unions are prepared to hold special merger meetings at their main autumn conferences next year. If agreement is reached, balloting would proceed in early 2006.
The report says: "It was felt to be very important to take maximum advantage of the momentum and good will that currently existed and not to prolong negotiations unnecessarily."
The speed of the move will alarm some. While Natfhe has been pushing for a merger for some time, AUT members have been more cautious. Last year, the AUT council described a motion calling for merger in five years as too "rigid".
Some AUT members fear that their 49,000-strong union will be swallowed by Natfhe, which has 67,000 members.
There are also fears about compatibility since 47,000 of Natfhe's members are in further education colleges while almost all of the AUT's members are in pre-1992 universities.
But this week Sally Hunt, general secretary of the AUT, said: "If I believed for an instant that the interests of higher education would be subsumed in this new union, I would not pursue it. I believe the new union will protect and enhance the interests of higher education."
Acknowledging these fears, the negotiating group has published a set of principles to underpin the new union.
The report says: "It will have devolved decision-making structures to take account of the interests of further education and higher education members, including those in both pre and post-1992 institutions."
The report proposes that the new union, which would have a combined membership of more than 100,000, has two general secretaries until 2008 when a new one will be elected.
Paul Mackney, general secretary of Natfhe, said: "My term of office ends in December 2007, when the new union should already be set up. We are currently looking into how all this will work."
Ms Hunt is up for re-election in 2006.
The negotiating group is seeking agreement on the constitutional structure of the new union, transitional constitutional arrangements, the new rule book and bringing together the operational and administrative functions of the two organisations.
COUNTDOWN TO MERGER
December: Negotiators submit detailed proposals to the national executive committees of the two unions, covering constitutional structure of the new union and progress report on other work
February/March: NECs agree merger proposals for submission to council/conference
April/May: Council/conference agree to ballot members on creation of new union
Sept/October: Membership ballot
Spring/summer: Formal establishment of new union
End of transitional arrangements and election of first general secretary of merged union.