Postgraduate students could outnumber undergraduates at Oxford University by 2020 under plans to reposition the ancient university to maintain its world-class status.
The reforms would also allow Oxford to reduce its dependence on state grants.
According to internal strategy documents obtained by The Times Higher , Oxford has agreed to raise total student numbers by almost 2 per cent a year through postgraduate recruitment alone at least until 2009. A discussion paper says that at this rate, the number of postgraduates would equal the 11,000 undergraduates by 2016 and would surpass that if the expansion continued.
The documents also includes a proposal to cut places for UK-based undergraduates, which was first reported by The Times Higher last June, as Oxford raises the number of overseas undergraduates while freezing total undergraduate numbers.
"There is an ever-widening gap between the financial pulling power of major US universities and their UK counterparts, which is making it harder for us to attract the best students and to recruit and retain the best staff," the document warns.
The key document, a consultation paper on the development of the university's academic strategy, says that the introduction of top-up fees of £3,000 in 2006 will not cover the full costs of teaching home undergraduates and will barely make any inroads into the annual £1 billion funding shortfall faced by the sector.
The document confirms that Oxford has agreed to raise full-time student numbers by 1.9 per cent a year entirely through postgraduates, at least until 2009 - "somewhat accelerating the convergence in the size of the undergraduate and graduate populations", the paper says.
A draft of the proposed academic strategy document up for consultation states that by 2020, the university will have "about 20,000 students, of whom about half will be graduate students". But the consultation document says that if expansion continued beyond 2009, student numbers would reach 26,000 by 2020, with postgraduates equalling undergraduates as early as 2016.
The paper also confirms that by 2020 the university would expect "a large minority of undergraduates (to be) from outside the UK and the European Union". With undergraduate numbers frozen at 11,000, this would mean "an alteration of the composition of the undergraduate body at the rate of about 1 percentage point per annum from home/EU to overseas students" for the next five years. Under the plan, Oxford would lose about 1,500 home student places, it is understood.
The paper says Oxford must make graduate studies part of its "core business". This could involve a "radical" plan to dedicate Oxford's colleges exclusively to the liberal arts, detaching medicine and science from the college system altogether.
An Oxford spokeswoman said: "The paper is deliberately not prescriptive to encourage open debate among those affected by the issues covered. The university's council will consider responses from this consultation next term."