The new code of practice for research students could lead to an increase in litigation, universities were warned this week.
The code, published last month by the Quality Assurance Agency, sets out what a PhD student can expect from a university and vice versa.
Universities have to comply with the code by August, 2005.
John Wakeford, director of the Missenden Centre, which this week ran a series of seminars on the code, said: "The code is clear that the formal letter offering students a place constitutes a contract between the student and the institution and it is binding.
"This, combined with the full code, will give dissatisfied students powerful leverage in any court cases.
"Some students can invest as much as £200,000 in getting their PhD.
This makes it extremely important that universities ensure students are properly supported."
A Hefce circular issued last week said: "This will be mainly paper based, with follow-up visits where institutions' returns indicate particular cause for concern."
Universities must comply with the code to secure funding from the Higher Education Funding Council for England.
The QAA will check university compliance in a one-off survey next year.
From 2006-07, compliance will be checked through the normal cycle of QAA institutional audits.