University heads meeting in Manchester overwhelmingly backed plans to establish "programme specifications" governing the content and quality of all undergraduate courses.
The first national standards could be piloted in Wales and Scotland next year, with the system extending across Britain by 2001. The move marks a profound shift for universities, which have always jealously guarded their right to set degree standards.
Yesterday the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals rejected claims that the new standards represented a national curriculum for degrees and said they would safeguard standards for all students.
Student leaders said the move would help ensure that people paying the new pounds 1,000 a year university tuition fees got value for money.
Under the proposals, to be discussed tomorrow by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, academics will draw up broad specifications for each of the hundreds of subjects taught in universities.
The standards will show the areas graduates will be expected to cover, and lay out the depth of knowledge they must gain. The quality of individual courses will be measured against national standards.
Specifications will be set by academics working with the Quality Assurance Agency, the quango monitoring the quality of university teaching. Work on the first subjects, chemistry, history and law, has started.
A system of "academic reviewers" - effectively lecturers acting as expert inspectors - will oversee the traditional system of external examiners who ensure standards are maintained.
The proposals, expected to be approved by the English, Welsh and Scottish funding council within weeks, have been extensively revised.
Jim Gardner, vice-president of the National Union of Students, said: "It's not a national curriculum. It's trying to ensure that a degree from Bognor is the same as a degree from the Ivy League."
Professor Ivor Crewe, vice-chancellor of Essex University, said: "This is generally supported because it shifts the emphasis towards standards but does not impose a grotesquely heavy burden on universities."
Universities should transform themselves into powerhouses of enterprise, Richard Caborn, minister for the regions, told the vice-chancellors yesterday.
He said academics were doing too little to convert Britain's world-beating expertise into commercial success. He said: "Higher education has a very important role in regional policy."
New regional development agencies would bring academics and businesses together to stimulate economic growth and hi-tech industry, he added.