An "earn as you learn" scheme launched by accountancy firm KPMG could herald a change in the nature of undergraduate study as well as graduate recruitment.
The programme, a first in the UK, will see KPMG pay new recruits a good salary and meet the full cost of study towards a BSc in accounting at Durham University.
After six years the students will gain a professional accounting qualification as well as their university degree, while earning a salary of £45,000 by the final year.
The scheme was designed by KPMG in response to a damning review of access to the elite professions chaired by former Labour MP Alan Milburn. The firm developed the model with 200 schools that had a high proportion of pupils receiving free school meals.
Welcoming the scheme, Mr Milburn said it would advance social mobility and called on other companies to follow KPMG's lead.
David Willetts, the minister for universities and science, added: "It's the kind of initiative that we hope will flourish as we reform higher education."
The model is likely to be attractive to universities at a time of concern about the impact of higher tuition fees on poorer students' access to higher education.
Rob Dixon, dean of Durham Business School, said the partnership would help the institution hit numerous targets, not only by improving diversity among the student body, but also in graduate employability and by creating links with employers.
"For us, this programme is perfect in achieving the broad employability agenda. It not only gives people the opportunity to work, but there is a structured programme of development both within the university and within KPMG," he said.
Co-funding for degrees proved unpopular under the previous Labour government, but the increase in the tuition fee cap to £9,000 and its impact on the recruitment market could change behaviour.
Durham is talking with a major bank and an insurance firm about developing similar programmes, and KPMG has approached other universities about expanding its scheme.
In September, when the scheme is due to launch, KPMG will recruit a group of 75 sixth-form students who have achieved a minimum of an A and two Bs at A level.
In the first three years they will work primarily for the company, with some study time spent at Durham. In the fourth year, nine months will be spent studying full-time at the university, after which they will obtain a BSc. During the fifth and sixth years the employees will complete an additional chartered accountancy qualification through the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales.
All costs, including tuition, accommodation and travel, will be met by KPMG, which said it planned to increase the annual intake to 400 students over time.