Oxford University is planning to establish a part-time degree for mature students as part of a raft of sweeping reforms aimed at addressing its access problems.
Female students and pupils from maintained schools should also be targeted as under-represented groups in application and admission statistics, a working party appointed by vice-chancellor Colin Lucas has concluded.
The new focus on non-traditional applicants is a response to the government's lifelong learning agenda. Recognising the huge structural implications of the move, a report from the working party underlines the importance of improved childcare provision and accommodation for mature students, as well as the development of hardship and access funding programmes.
The report accepts, however, that the residential nature of Oxford's collegiate system could put off mature undergraduates. This may mean that "a significant increase may not be feasible".
The department for continuing education already offers up to 600 different short courses. It is also restructuring its credit award framework to bring it in line with the national model recommended by the Dearing report. It is hoped that this will allow students with credit-based qualifications to transfer to and from different higher education institutions.
From October a level-one certificate will be offered as the first stage of a proposed three-tier part-time undergraduate programme. Only three level-one courses are available now, but the number of subjects offered in the first year is to be doubled at least.
"This is a good thing for Oxford," said Trevor Rowley, acting director of the department for continuing education. "It is a signal to the rest of the world that Oxford is committed to allowing those students not able to take a full-time Oxford degree, for one reason or another, a chance to study."
Neither Oxford nor Cambridge has ever offered part-time degrees, and a traditionalist backlash is expected.
Other proposed reforms include forging better links with those unfamiliar with Oxford's procedures and making the admissions process more transparent by allowing teachers to see applications guidelines and training tutors in interview techniques. The group rejects quota systems because they "substitute mechanical compliance for active responsibility in the pursuit of fairness".
Dr Lucas welcomed the proposals. "We are not complacent and plan to redouble our efforts to continue our drive to widen access here, not least among mature students," he said.