Southampton is considering forming a regional university with its four accredited colleges based on the multi-campus model common in the United States.
The project, already being referred to as the University of Wessex, would involve all five institutions ceding responsibility for funding, admissions and strategic academic planning to a central bureacracy.
They would otherwise retain their autonomy, with distinct yet collaborative missions along the lines of the 26-campus University of Wisconsin.
In one version of the future, the colleges would be teaching-led campuses for sub-degree and much of the undergraduate work, while the current university campus concentrates on graduate teaching and research.
Howard Newby, Southampton vice chancellor, worked at Wisconsin in the 1980s. He has already begun talks with Chichester Institute of Higher Education, Winchester School of Art, King Alfred's College, Winchester, and La Sainte Union College in Southampton, which all offer Southampton degrees.
"We are the fourth largest accrediting institution in the country," said Professor Newby. "We need to be clear why we are doing this and where it fits into our mission of being a research-led institution."
He said one option was that of minimal co-operation should the colleges want to form course-accreditation links elsewhere with a view to one day becoming universities in their own right.
Professor Newby sees continued expansion of higher education in the area as inevitable. "Our relations with our neighbours have drifted because we have not been clear about our ultimate aims and objectives," he said. "We must not set our face against expansion, but rather seek a device which allows the bulk of the expansion, especially among unconventional students, to take place elsewhere, while we concentrate on research, on postgraduate teaching and the education of undergraduates with high A-level grades."
He added: "Helpful analogies exist in a number of American federal systems. These involve a slender system-wide body accountable to the legislature for expenditure and responsible for academic planning.
"The constituent institutions possess almost total operational autonomy and pursue separate, though compatible, missions."
Deputy vice chancellor Roy Farrar, who chairs the university's working party, describes the relationship as a family where the university is the parent and the colleges are like teenagers coming of age. Now they must decide their future together.
"It stretches from an institute merging with the university and becoming a full faculty, or you could create a federation with a central body," he said.
A credit-accumulation transfer system would enable students to transfer between courses and sites. "Another model is entering into a strategic partnership where you have separately financed institutions agreeing to concentrate on some areas and share others.
"Although Southampton is a national and an international university, some of us have believed for a long time we need to establish a very strong regional base as well," he added.
John Dickinson, principal of King Alfred's College, said it would be premature to say whether the college saw itself as part of a federal university or preferred to stand alone. "With a new vice chancellor it is an appropriate time to look at the way the family operates," he said.
The federal discussions exclude Southampton's other university sector college, the Southampton Institute of Higher Education, where courses are validated by Nottingham Trent University. But principal David Leyland said he did not see the concept as a threat. "We have more undergraduates than Southampton University. If all the colleges merged with Southampton University, we would still be quite big."