The government says nurses' roles are becoming increasingly complex
All new nurses in England from 2013 will have to be educated to degree level from 2013, the Department of Health has announced.
The move will help nurses meet the increasingly complex needs of patients more safely and effectively, it said.
Just over a quarter of the 315,000 nurses in England currently have a degree.
The move follows increases in the responsibilities given to nurses such as having to write prescriptions.
The Nursing and Midwifery Council, the regulatory body for nurses, is developing new standards for nurse education, which will be introduced across the UK from 2013.
Degree level programmes in nursing are already offered in England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland.
Wales moved to only offering degree programmes in 2004 but students can leave at diploma level if they choose.
Northern Ireland will move to a degree only programme from 2011 and all students will receive a non means tested bursary.
Most nursing diplomas and degrees take 3 years - although some colleges offer a four year degree.
Current training involves a combination of theoretical and practical work, but the new standards, which are open to consultation, will include a focus on giving students community health experience.
Trainees will shadow school health nurses and district nurses who work with people in their own homes.
At the end of both the degree and diploma students become registered nurses.
The main difference is the way they are funded - diploma students can get a non-means tested bursary of £7000 a year, degree students rely on means-tested student loans and may end up with a big bill to pay at the end of their training.
However several of the higher posts in nursing do require a degree qualification.
Best possible start
Health Minister for England Ann Keen said: "Nurses are the largest single profession within the health service, and are critical to the delivery of high quality healthcare.
HAVE YOUR SAY
As a registered general nurse who has trained within the last 10 years it is quite apparent that student nurses are already at degree level - it's just never been recognised
Nicky, Lincoln, UK
"By bringing in degree-level registration we can ensure new nurses have the best possible start to meet the challenges of tomorrow.
"Degree-level education will provide new nurses with the decision-making skills they need to make high-level judgements in the transformed NHS."
The Chief Nursing Officer, Christine Beasley, said: "We need to make sure that not only do nurses need to care and have compassion, but they also need to have real ability to think, to make critical decisions and have technical skills.
"What we're doing now is to look to the future, to make sure we are preparing nurses to do the very best they can for our patients and community."
Wales has already introduced degree level training for nurses since 2004.
Dr Peter Carter, general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN), called the move "an important and historic development".
He said: "All nurses need to put quality care at the centre of what they do, and they also need extensive knowledge, analytical skills and experience to work in a range of settings.
"Many nursing roles are demanding and involve increasingly advanced levels of practice and clinical knowledge."
Dr Carter said the move was not designed to restrict entry to the nursing profession.
"We must ensure that the door to nursing continues to be as wide as possible.
"Students must also be properly supported to continue in their studies."
Gail Adams, head of nursing at the union, UNISON, said they want the profession to retain its caring reputation.
She said: "Our concerns throughout have been to make sure that the profession, whether you're a nurse or a midwife, that we're actually reflecting the society that we care for and I think one of the concerns that colleagues have had is about making sure the right emphasis is placed on the care and compassion that nurses give and that shouldn't be solely based on their level of academia."
Michael Summers, vice-chairman of the Patients Association, welcomed the move.
"I don't think anybody could really complain about nursing being taught to a high level," he said.
But the RCN is concerned that nurses are being pushed into practices which mean that patient care is being compromised.
The organisation is to investigate the extent to which they are coming under undue pressure to meet key targets in the NHS.
It is also concerned that nurses are being pressurised into manipulating data and falsifying information around key targets.
Dr Carter acknowledged that targets had helped to improve patient care and drive down waiting times.
But he said: "It is, however, completely unacceptable when meeting a target comes before the delivery of patient care, or when hitting a statistic takes priority over clinical need."