The UK's University of Warwick and Australia's Monash University have formed a partnership aimed at pushing them "well into the first 50 institutions" in the world as they anticipate similar moves by rivals in a globalised higher education market.
Warwick and Monash say that the link, announced on 2 February, responds to employer and student demands for internationalised education and will increase their appeal to overseas students - particularly those from Asia, where Monash has established branch campuses.
The partnership also strives to increase the universities' research presence in "world-relevant and strategically important" areas, and to capitalise on international research funding opportunities.
It will start with £2 million in seed funding for 10 joint senior academic posts, plus new dual master's and joint doctoral degrees in areas of "strategic importance".
Nigel Thrift, Warwick's vice-chancellor, said: "This is probably the first time that two large and significant universities have tried to cooperate on this kind of scale."
Ed Byrne, Monash's vice-chancellor, said that in future the partnership could include ventures in online learning; "research opportunities with international bodies that are interested in global activities that go into every continent", such as financial agencies; and "degrees that are particularly focused on high achievers throughout Asia".
Professor Byrne, a former vice-provost of University College London and director of private healthcare firm Bupa, said that globalisation and technological change meant that higher education "is really going to become a global marketplace", a process that will "alter the traditional university model".
He echoed an airline analogy previously used by Professor Thrift to highlight the potential development of global university partnerships. Professor Byrne said that in the Star Alliance that includes Lufthansa and United Airlines, independent brands had realised that "to cover the globe" they "needed to come together to form a different type of partnership".
The two vice-chancellors believe that global "university systems" will be needed to respond to future demands in education and research.
Strength in numbers
Professor Thrift predicted that there would be a group of universities ranked in the world top 30 that could "choose the situation they wish to be in".
These universities would be "invited into particular countries, often with someone - a government or some other institution - writing the cheque".
"What we think will happen for universities that aren't in that position is that they will gradually group together," he added.
Professor Byrne said the partnership was a "major strategic repositioning" aimed at pushing Warwick and Monash "well into the first 50 institutions" in world university ranking terms.
Monash, based in Melbourne, already has full branch campuses in Johannesburg and Kuala Lumpur, plus a postgraduate research centre in Mumbai established in partnership with the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay. It also plans to set up a postgraduate campus in China.
Warwick has a centre in Venice.
Both the UK and Australia are "very attractive" to international students, Professor Byrne said, and are "among the top three for the burgeoning and ever-increasing international student market, which will continue to grow as the wealth of Asia grows". He highlighted the growing expectation among students that they should be "educated in a global context and acquire a skill set marketable across the globe".
Professor Byrne added: "In Asia, the big decision students make is effectively whether to come to the UK or Australia. This offers the potential to have the best of both worlds."
The "non-Australian and non-UK campuses that both universities have will be part of the student opportunities on offer", he said.
The Warwick-Monash partnership will be overseen by a jointly appointed senior figure who will report directly to the two vice-chancellors and sit alongside the senior management teams of both universities.
Professor Byrne said the link could lead to the universities jointly setting up businesses "spinning off from research or new educational opportunities".
He added: "We would regard it as very disappointing if, in a few years' time, there weren't very, very significant sums of money coming in through this initiative."