Universities will be prohibited from charging tuition fees for nursing and other health courses under new contracts being hammered out with the Department of Health.
This will set them apart from all other higher education courses, including medicine, which look likely to introduce variable fees.
Nursing and other health deans have also reached provisional agreement on a system of penalties and bonuses to reduce dropout rates. No other university courses are subject to such requirements.
Over the past two years, universities and the National Health Service have been involved in intensive negotiations to move away from a market-based approach after the National Audit Office found that it was damaging provision.
A meeting between universities and the NHS last week resulted in significant progress towards agreeing indefinite contracts. Another meeting next month is expected to agree a price of about £6,200 per student per year, with allowances for London weighting and small local variations.
This will cover nursing courses as well as courses such as physiotherapy and occupational therapy. Other more expensive health courses, such as radiography, will get a 15 per cent premium.
The agreement is subject to confirmation by ministers, but universities are hailing it as a major breakthrough.
A spokesperson for the council of deans of nursing and health professions, said: "We are pleased to reach agreement on the many complex issues involved. We trust that this will be endorsed by ministers. This is essential so that universities can continue to provide education for the increasing number of new nurses and allied health professionals required by the NHS."
The agreement will give DoH courses the sort of price banding and stability long enjoyed by courses funded by the Higher Education Funding Council for England. Where it differs is in prohibiting fees.
For the past few years, the NHS has contracted with universities to run health courses through workforce development confederations. Next April, these will be absorbed into strategic health authorities.
An NAO report in 2001 was highly critical of variations in pricing between different universities and their local workforce development confederations. It said that short-term contracts were damaging provision.
It also acknowledged that universities were disadvantaged when negotiating with the NHS, as the loss of a contract could cripple a university, imposing large-scale job cuts and impeding its ability to provide a range of health courses.
A major price benchmarking exercise was subsequently carried out by JM Consulting. Universities and the DoH set up pricing and contract working groups, which are now close to agreement. The new contracts could be introduced in September.
The DoH funds about 15 per cent of all undergraduate teaching in universities. In some universities, the department accounts for a significant proportion of overall income.
Professor Dame Jill Macleod Clark, head of the School of Nursing at Southampton, said: "It is essential that we get a positive outcome in terms of ministers agreeing to these contracts. It will enable us to do serious long-term planning with our NHS partners."
She said that the benchmark pricing was based on research from JM Consulting. "This is an inexact science, but there is a reasonable fit," she added.
DoH money makes up half the budget of the faculty of medicine, health and life sciences at Southampton - one of three faculties in the university.