Ministers from 29 European countries have agreed on a 10-year plan to eliminate obstacles to student mobility and graduate employment.
This week they signed the Bologna declaration, which they believe represents a historic step towards the creation of a European Higher Education Area by ironing out the less compatible elements of the region's university systems.
But the drafting process for the agreement, which builds on last year's Sorbonne declaration, was far from trouble-free. The signing ceremony was delayed as ministers wrangled over details.
Universities were anxious to safeguard their academic autonomy and control over the courses' content, while national govern-ments were unwilling to surrender control over their education systems to paranational agencies such as the European Commission, which wanted push forward the Sorbonne declaration.
Baroness Blackstone, Britain's minister of state for education and employment, said the hold-up was the result of detailed technical issues, but the delay fuelled speculation that a number of ministers had been unwilling to sign the draft declaration without considerable modification.
The aim was to devise a way of fusing the disparate degree structures across Europe into a structure that would encourage greater student mobility while being understood by employers.
Ministers agreed on a system based on two cycles - undergraduate and postgraduate - with the first-degree cycle lasting at least three years. The second, graduate, cycle would lead to the master or doctorate degree found in many European countries.
Baroness Blackstone said: "British universities are in a strong position in that they have already got the kind of architecture of a first degree, masters and PhD I The rest of Europe will be coming closer to Britain."
Other objectives include better credit transfer to encourage student mobility, and co-operation over quality assurance.
The declaration states: "The importance of education and educational co-operation in the development and strengthening of stable, peaceful and democratic societies is universally acknowledged as paramount, the more so in view of the situation in south-east Europe."
Kenneth Edwards, president of the Association of European Universities and vice-chancellor of Leicester University, said: "I hope there will be a continuing dialogue between the representatives of higher education and national and European governments I The higher education system across Europe is enthusiastic to work with national and multinational governments to develop greater potential for exchanges, partnership, mutual recognition and coherence."
Some countries, notably Italy and France, have begun to introduce shorter first degree courses in line with the declarations. But ministers are anxious to avoid being seen to dilute universities' autonomy or reduce the diversity that vice-chancellors believe is their strength in a global market.
The European Student Information Bureau, which represents national student unions, said the declarations should not be used to limit access.