The University of South Florida System as it stands has an expiration date.The fate of USF's three universities lies within a higher education bill that Gov. Rick Scott signed into law on Sunday, setting the process of a system merger in motion. Here's what you need to know.Wait, what's happening?Back in January, a proposal appeared in the last few pages of a sprawling higher education bill. It said that USF St. Petersburg and USF Sarasota-Manatee would both have to phase out their separate accreditation and reunite with USF Tampa under a single accreditation umbrella. Goodbye USF System, hello unified USF.Rep. Chris Sprowls, the Palm Harbor Republican behind the push, said he wanted a rising tide to lift all boats. USF Tampa, with its rising graduation rates and ever-sharper students, is headed for the state designation of preeminence, with all of the extra funding and prestige that it carries. Sprowls said separate accreditation acted as a barrier, keeping that wealth from flowing to St. Petersburg and Sarasota. Now all students would benefit from shared resources, prestige and degree programs.And since USF was the state's only university system, a merger would also put in line with its peers.Outrage came swiftly in Pinellas County, where leaders said they were blindsided by what they saw as a power grab. They said USF St. Petersburg had blossomed since becoming separately accredited in 2006, a hard-won victory that followed decades of tense squabbles over resources.USF System President Judy Genshaft said she had first heard of the merger idea last fall, but that its appearance in a bill came as a shock. Eventually she voiced her support for it, as did higher education leaders in Sarasota and Tallahassee. But St. Petersburg leaders asked the Legislature to "press pause," fearing a backslide to the old days.Their efforts failed. The bill passed. But not before Rep. Larry Ahern, R-Seminole, amended it to bolster the autonomy of USF St. Petersburg and USF Sarasota-Manatee under a merger, establishing some measure of control over budgets and leadership.So what now?First, a task force has to be assembled. Members must get to work quickly, as they have to send a long list of recommendations to the USF board of trustees by Feb. 15, 2019.The USF board will have until March 15 to adopt a plan and submit it to the state board of governors. Separate accreditation must be phased out by June 30, 2020, meaning that by July 1, 2020, all of USF will come under a single institutional accreditation.What happens to USF St. Petersburg and USF Sarasota-Manatee?USF St. Petersburg and USF Sarasota-Manatee will keep their names, though they'll become campuses, rather than universities.Each will get to keep its regional chancellor and campus board, which will expand a bit. Their seven members each, appointed by USF's board chairman, will be joined by two extra members: the campus faculty senate leader, and the campus student body president.The campus boards will retain the power to submit their own operating plans and budgets to the main USF board. Like now, the main board has the final say.Also, the regional campuses will now take ownership of any college primarily located in their county. For St. Petersburg, that means absorbing the prized College of Marine Science.What happens to admissions? What happens to all of the duplicate programs and departments? What about campus funding?Good questions. But there aren't many solid answers yet. That's where the task force comes in.Who's on it?• A leader appointed by the head of the state board of governors.• Two members appointed by the Senate president, and two appointed by the House speaker.• Two members appointed by Chairman Brian Lamb of USF's board, and one each by the heads of the campus boards.• One member appointed by USF St. Petersburg's interim leader, and one by USF Sarasota-Manatee's regional chancellor.• USF System President Judy Genshaft or her designee.• And one student member appointed by the USF Alumni Association.The USF board will also assign personnel from each campus to help the task force, and the task force leader can consult university merger experts for guidance.What's their job?The task force will come up with recommendations on:• Which degrees in top fields (such as health care and engineering) should be brought to St. Pete and Sarasota, plus a timeline.• How to maintain the unique identity of each campus, with consideration of separate educational missions.• Keeping faculty involved while working on the curriculum to "reflect the distinctive identity of each campus."• Building out the research capacity in St. Pete and Sarasota.• Fairly distributing programs that build pathways to admission for students who need financial aid and bridge programming to get to USF.• Keeping budgets transparent and accountable when it comes to student fees and campus resources.• Integrating things like academic programs, faculty governance and administrative services.For all of the pushback in Pinellas County, is there any kind of accountability measure at work?Every other year, USF's board of trustees will have to publish a "regional impact report" detailing, with specifics, how much it's spending on programs in Pinellas and Sarasota. The report will also dive into topics such as access to new degree programs, enrollment changes, research growth, campus development and a look at how students are performing.Also, when the USF board publishes its annual operating budget, it will include a report on the distribution of funds — from student fees to preeminence dollars — across campuses.How does this affect preeminence and performance-based funding?The USF System had already been using unified metrics, like graduation rates, to compete for state performance-based funding. But USF Tampa had been competing alone for the pretigious designation of preeminence. Now USF will have to compete as a whole, meaning the St. Petersburg and Sarasota campuses, which have had traditionally lower metrics, will be under pressure to raise the bar.But there's some built-in adjustment time. State metrics won't count St. Pete and Sarasota students enrolled before spring 2020, or students there who choose to leave USF before separate accreditation phases out.Any other questions? Email higher education reporter Claire McNeill at email@example.com.