TWO of Edinburgh's most prestigious higher education institutions could merge by August next year, it has emerged.
The ruling court of Edinburgh University this week backed merging with Edinburgh College of Art (ECA) just days after the art college's ruling body also agreed.
The two bodies must now conduct a 12-week consultation before the Scottish Government gives final permission to the deal.
The Scottish Funding Council (SFC), which distributes government funding to colleges and universities, must also give its backing to the proposal.
However, SFC chairman John McClelland has spoken publicly in previous months in favour of merging educational institutions to save money and prevent an overlap in provision.
A full merger proposal document will be submitted to both bodies, but the decision is widely expected to be approved.
If education secretary Michael Russell does give final approval, that is not expected to be announced until February next year.
If all goes well the two education institutions could come together by August.
A joint e-mail to students and staff at the university from principal Timothy O'Shea and Edinburgh University Students' Association (EUSA) president Liz Rawlings confirmed that negotiations were officially over.
It said: "The college and the university agreed earlier this year that the two institutions should explore ways of strengthening collaborative working arrangements, including the possibility of merger.
"The detailed proposals were developed following consultation with staff, students, and other stakeholders.
"The vision is of a vibrant, growing and sustainable art college that combines the knowledge, skills, and expertise of each institution, and enhances the high international reputation that both enjoy.
"EUSA supports the proposed merger, which offers huge opportunities both academically and socially for students at the university."
Plans for the merger had originally mooted the date of 2013, but it has been speculated that the move has been accelerated in order to make efficiency savings more quickly.
However, ECA alumni are furious about the speed of the merger.
Dr Barbara Rae, chairwoman of the Alumni Association's council, stressed it was ill- advised to rush into a decision before the full extent of any cuts was known.
She said: "We believe it imperative to safeguard the Edinburgh College of Art in the same way the Glasgow School of Art is respected and revered, both founded long ago to explore and promote originality in the arts."
The University of Edinburgh was founded in 1583 and is regularly ranked among the top 50 universities in the world.
Edinburgh College of Art was founded in 1907.