THE University of Edinburgh and the city's College of Art are in talks about a potential merger. The move, being discussed by the principals of the two institutions in light of feared financial cuts, could happen by 2012.
Left: Eleanor Welch in the Hat of Staring, designed by Performance Costume BA student Leila Dearness
Right: Iain Macwhirter during his installation as Rector of Edinburgh University last March
A statement from the university last night said: "A combined institution would be likely to provide greater opportunities and security in the current and future economic context, with each currently enhancing what the other has to offer."
Edinburgh College of Art principal Professor Ian Howard sent a letter to staff this week explaining that the move was being examined in the light of the current economic situation.
Last night, he said: "Throughout its 250-year history, Edinburgh College of Art has always evolved to meet the challenges of the contemporary and to look to the future.
"We already partner the university in a highly successful academic federation, and the potential offered by closer collaboration is well worth exploring and may result in very exciting possibilities for enhanced teaching, research and creative endeavour."
Moves to bring the two institutions together have been mooted for decades, but any formal merger has been ruled out until now.
As a joint institution, the two could make substantial savings by sharing facilities and services such as human resources departments, libraries and student accommodation.
Any buildings made redundant by the merger could be sold off for a potentially high price to property developers.
Edinburgh University principal Professor Timothy O'Shea said: "The university and college, by working more closely together, could create a collective range of expertise and excellence that would offer an exciting range of opportunities, not only for staff and students, but also for the creative arts in Scotland."
It is understood discussions are at a very early stage and issues such as potential job losses have not yet been put on the table.
However, a source indicated the move could lead to expansion of the teaching and research conducted at the art college.
The plan would require thorough examination of both institutions and close talks with higher education funding body the Scottish Funding Council (SFC).
Should the merger be recommended by the two principals, the move would still require agreement of the two institutions' governing bodies, together with the SFC, which allocates government funding, and the Scottish Government's education secretary.
Widespread consultation is being promised by the college and university before any changes are made, meaning any merger is unlikely before 2012.
The SFC last night indicated it was supportive of the move. A spokeswoman said: "We welcome any institutions working closely together for mutual benefit to enhance their teaching and research."
Collaboration between the two institutions dates back to the 19th century, and a jointly taught degree in fine art has been offered since 1946.
For several years, both have been partners in an academic federation, and in 2003 the university became the accrediting body for the art college's degree qualifications. An SFC-backed project also led to the development of a joint initiative, the Edinburgh School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture – whose first students started in the current academic year.
In the latest tie-up move, both governing bodies agreed to allow the respective principals to explore strengthening collaboration, including the possibility of a merger.
However, no decisions have yet been reached.
In 2000, Edinburgh College of Art was promised additional funding after a proposed merger with Heriot-Watt University fell through.
The previous year, the college's board of governors had voted to open talks with Heriot-Watt, arguing that a merger would guarantee the college's long-term financial future.
However, students and staff insisted that the school, which has produced many leading artists, including Elizabeth Blackadder, Robin Philipson, Sir William Gillies, Alan Davie and recent Turner Prize winner Richard Wright, would lose out if it had to compete for funding with other departments of a large university.
Eventually, the art college pulled out of talks.
If the latest merger proposal goes ahead, it would leave Glasgow as the only independent art school in Scotland.
Gray's in Aberdeen is now part of Robert Gordon University and in 1996 Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art merged with Dundee University.
In 2000, Edinburgh College of Art was granted small specialist institution (SSI) funding status, through which the SFC made up the financial difference between specialist institutions, which have high-cost courses such as art and drama, and other higher education institutions.
Glasgow School of Art was also given the specialist funding status at the time.
The first institution to achieve SSI status, in March 1998, was the Royal Scottish Academy of Drama and Music in Glasgow.
• Claims of 'dubious research' could deter vital academic investment
• Established: 1583
• Students: about 24,000
• Teaching funding 2009-10: 77,527,000
• Research funding 2009-10: 75,813,000
• Number of degree courses: more than 600
• Nobel prize winners: Prof Charles Barkla (physics, 1917); Max Born (physics, 1954); Peter Doherty (medicine, 1996); James Mirrlees (economics, 1996)
• Famous alumni: Charles Darwin (naturalist and author of The Origin of Species); David Hume (philosopher and leading figure of the Enlightenment); Gordon Brown (Prime Minister)
• According to 2008 Academic Ranking of World Universities: 6th in UK, 13th in Europe, 55th in the world
Edinburgh College of Art
• Established: 1760
• Students: approximately 1,700
• Teaching funding 2009-10: 6,482,000
• Research funding 2009-10: 1,257,000
• Number of degree programmes: 19; plus 20 postgraduate courses
• Nobel prize winners: none
• Famous alumni: Sir Nicholas Grimshaw (president of the Royal Academy of Arts); John Leight (director-general of the National Galleries of Scotland); Dame Elizabeth Blackadder (Limner to HM The Queen)