The four universities have left the 1994 Group, which represents smaller, mainly campus-based, research-intensive universities, to join the Russell Group of elite universities.
It increases the membership of the Russell Group to 24 and reduces the 1994 Group’s membership to 15.
Michael Arthur, vice-chancellor of University of Leeds and chair of the Russell Group, said: “We are delighted to announce that the Russell Group board has invited four more members to join the group, all of whom have accepted.
“Durham, Exeter, Queen Mary and York have demonstrated that - like all other Russell Group members - they excel in research, innovation and education and have a critical mass of research excellence across a wide range of disciplines.”
Wendy Piatt, director general of the Russell Group, said: “Our global competitors are pumping billions into research and higher education and snapping at our heels.
“The UK cannot afford to be outmanoeuvred by other countries who clearly recognise that investment in their leading universities is the key to growth.
“I look forward to working with our new members to make sure the UK remains a global leader in higher education and continues to reap the economic and social benefits that our leading research-intensive universities provide.”
Michael Farthing, chair of the 1994 Group and vice-chancellor of the University of Sussex, said: “It is disappointing that these institutions have decided to leave the 1994 Group, but I wish them well in their new mission group.
"Like all members of the 1994 Group they are excellent institutions with global reputations. It is a mark of pride that they have been able to build on these reputations through 1994 Group membership.
“The 1994 Group continues to represent some of the world's best higher education institutions. Each believes that outstanding research informs excellent teaching to deliver the highest quality student experiences. This commitment to the student experience is the principle which our members came together to champion, and it is one we will continue to uphold.”