The power to award degrees has been granted to a private, profit-making company for the first time.
In what has been described as an "astonishing, monumental decision", the Privy Council has handed degree-awarding powers to BPP College, a legal and business training company owned by BPP Holdings plc.
The college confirmed that it would quickly change its name to BPP University College, as it is entitled to do, and would seek full university status in two or three years, after a major expansion drive in direct competition with traditional, state-funded universities.
Peter Crisp, chief executive of the college, told The Times Higher : "This is groundbreaking - an astonishing monumental decision. But it is in keeping with the Government's employer-led agenda to educate people for the professions, and that is what we do."
The college will charge up to £10,000 a year for courses, and will launch postgraduate degrees in business, law and accounting from 2009. It estimates that the market in these areas alone is worth £800 million a year.
Mr Crisp said the move sent a clear signal to the traditional sector: "Parts of the sector can be complacent, and we will offer healthy competition."
Last year, degree-awarding powers were granted to the College of Law, a not for-profit charity. The American for-profit education and training company Kaplan has also confirmed that it is seeking such powers.
Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, said: "Higher education is not a tradeable commodity... If providers need to make profits, quality is in doubt."