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Presidents Michael Goldbloom of Bishop’s University, Sean Riley of St. Francis Xavier University, Ray Ivany of Acadia University and Robert Campbell of Mount Allison University pose for a group portrait at The Globe and Mail’s Toronto headquarters on May 1, 2013.

PHILIP CHEUNG/The Globe and Mail

Four small eastern schools have decided they must co-operate to keep their identities strong after more than 150 years of competing for the mantle of Canada's elite undergraduate student experience.

Acadia University and St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia, Mount Allison University in New Brunswick, and Bishop's University in eastern Quebec have banded together as the U4 League, a superhero-esque moniker for a new structure to get the four schools sharing ideas – and, increasingly, students and professors.

With public funding under strain and concerns about the quality of undergraduate education getting louder across Canada, the partnership is meant to get the most out of each school's strengths. The schools' leaders aim to make it easier for students to tap the expertise of each university from their home campus, encourage faculty to work together across campuses, share ideas and find back-office savings – all without growing enrolments or eroding the intimate campus experience that is their hallmark.

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But while the leaders of all four schools trumpeted the possibilities of deeper links, they stressed that the move is not a precursor to any sort of future merger, nor is it a natural step for four universities that have seen each others as rivals for generations.

"We've been slowly edging toward this. … It's not in our natural DNA," said Michael Goldbloom, the principal at Bishop's, in an interview. "At a time of limited public resources for public education, you had better be really, really good at what you do."

The partnership was forged on common features: All four schools have between 2,400 and 4,000 students, 90-plus per cent of whom live on or near campus, in towns with populations not much larger than their student body, and are focused almost entirely on undergraduate programs. It's a model whose perceived value has stayed strong in the U.S., but "in Canada it's just not as well-known," said Ray Ivany, president of Acadia University.

To that end, the initiative is partly a marketing gambit, aimed at raising the profile of this cluster of liberal-arts universities. But it is mostly a bid to allow the universities to continue offering the small classes and attention to undergrads that could get too expensive if they go it alone. "If you have 90 per cent of your faculty [who are] full-time, you're a rare bird," said Sean Riley, president of St. FX, noting all U4 members still do.

The presidents stress they expect their communities of students, staff and professors will ultimately decide what comes of the partnership, and that all the talk of co-operation doesn't signal an end to their "friendly rivalry."

"We'll remain autonomous," said Robert Campbell, president of Mount Allison. "It's the competition that keeps us all sharp."

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