Four vice-chancellors revealed plans for the formation of an exclusive new "premier division" in higher education.
The self-appointed super colleges are Cambridge, Warwick, Edinburgh, and University College, London.
Sir Derek Roberts, the Provost of UCL, said that Oxford, the London School of Economics, Imperial College and King's College, London, would be guaranteed premier league places.
"After that it becomes difficult. Candidates would include Lancaster, York, Nottingham and Manchester," he said.
The four top colleges, whose plan would create an United States-style "Ivy League", were prompted into action by widespread concern over declining academic standards.
The four vice-chancellors have broken ranks with the Committee of Vice- Chancellors and accept that academic standards are falling. They draw a clear distinction between a traditional university education and the "trendy" courses offered by many of the newer universities.
Sir Derek said: "We are talking about intellectually challenging subjects ... the core of a good degree is three or four years' study in a difficult academic subject."
As an example, he said, subjects from medicine to law and economics to mathematics fell into the category, but public relations and media studies did not.
Writing in the Observer, the four vice-chancellors, Sir Derek, Alec Broers of Cambridge, Brian Follett of Warwick, and Stewart Sutherland of Edinburgh, said: "Britain's best universities must be treated like premier league soccer clubs.
"We should nurture them, pay their staff well, give them top-class grounds and encourage them to recruit international strikers. Only that way can we score goals in the research World Cup and drive our nation to prosperity."Reuse content