Lincoln University is insisting it will retain its name, location and identity in any merger with the University of Canterbury.
The two institutions have announced formal talks about a potential partnership or merger, nearly 30 years after Lincoln left the larger institution to become a stand-alone university.
The agreement followed long-running financial problems at Lincoln and years of speculation that the university would have to merge with another institution because it had too few students to be viable.
University vice-chancellor James McWha said the financial difficulties were resolved and the university would be in a good financial situation for the foreseeable future.
However Professor McWha said an advisory group had told the university its best option was to seek a closer relationship with another institution and Canterbury was the logical partner because of its proximity.
"If Canterbury hadn't wanted to be involved we would probably have talked to other New Zealand universities," he said.
He said the two institutions were not yet talking about a merger.
"All we've done at this point is agreed to talk with Canterbury about whether there's some form of partnership that would allow us to get better outcomes.
"There's a number of innovative ways of doing this. We could have the two universities linked with a common governance model, there are various ways in which you could do it and that's what we want to sit down and talk about," Prof McWha said.
The two institutions would report to the Education Minister, Chris Hipkins, by the end of the year, he said.
Prof McWha said Lincoln was still going ahead with plans for a joint facility with AgResearch and other organisations, and Mr Hipkins said the government's commitment of up to $85 million for that project was not affected by the merger talks.
Lincoln had 2695 full-time students last year, making it nearly a quarter of the size of the next largest university, and smaller also than all but two of the country's polytechnics.
The university began as a School of Agriculture of the then Canterbury College in 1878, but in 1896 was renamed Canterbury Agricultural College and was granted the right to award degrees through the University of New Zealand.
In 1961 it was made part of the University of Canterbury as Lincoln College and in 1990 it formally separated from the Canterbury to become a stand-alone university.
In 2011, Lincoln merged with Telford Rural Polytechnic in Balclutha, which taught certificate-level courses that enrolled hundreds of students a year. However, enrolments in the Telford programmes quickly dropped and in 2016 the university had to repay $1.5m in government subsidies after the Tertiary Education Commission discovered the polytechnic had broken funding rules. In 2017, Lincoln sold Telford to the Taratahi Institute of Agriculture.
In 2016, an independent report said Lincoln had not generated an operating surplus since 2007 and its best option for the future was to "integrate" with another university.
In late 2017, an advisory board warned that Lincoln needed significant course cuts, more Māori and Pasifika students, and more donations, an advisory board said.
It recommended the university "move away from being a stand-alone university" and focus on its role as part of the Lincoln Hub partnership with several Crown Research Institutes.
It said the university should out-source administration and contract other institutions to provide courses that were not central to Lincoln's focus on land-based sciences.