An ombudsman for universities will be ready to take student complaints from next January - four months later than the government promised in its white paper and three years after ministers called for the new post.
But it will have voluntary status only until at least 2006 when the office is put on a formal legal footing and universities are compelled to obey its rulings.
Universities UK confirmed this week that it has formally incorporated the Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA) as a limited company. Adverts for an adjudicator and deputy will appear this week and the appointments are expected by September.
The office will eventually be funded by subscriptions of up to £6,000 a year from each university, depending on size.
The two senior adjudicators will be supported by four full-time casework officers and several administrative staff. The OIA will be governed by a board made up of two representatives from the National Union of Students, UUK, the Standing Conference of Principals and the Committee of University Chairmen.
Chris Weavers, vice-president of the NUS, said: "We have been campaigning for this for 20 years, so it is very welcome."
Diana Warwick, chief executive of UUK, said: "This is a significant step forward, which will bring real benefits to students and institutions alike." But she warned that the ombudsman would operate on a voluntary basis only until legislation was passed to abolish the visitor system, the arbiter of student complaints in the old chartered universities.
It is understood that civil servants are drafting legislation to abolish the visitor and allow the governing bodies of new universities to delegate responsibility for complaints to the new ombudsman. This will be included in the higher education bill, due this autumn.
It is expected that the OIA will not have a binding legal framework for at least two years. Until then, students in old universities will still have the option of complaining to the visitor - in most cases a senior bishop or the Queen, represented by the Privy Council or Lord Chancellor's department.
The Privy Council confirmed that it would hand over complaints to the OIA on a voluntary basis for a report, which the visitor would then consider before delivering a verdict.
Former higher education minister Baroness Blackstone declared the visitor "dead" in 2000. The government said in its white paper last January that students had to be provided with "a fair, open and transparent means of redress when things go wrong".