Universities and colleges need to be more responsive to the needs of mature students as part of a wider review of their admissions policies, Baroness Blackstone, the higher education minister, told vice-chancellors last week.
The role of universities in providing extramural studies needs to be reconsidered in the wider context of access for mature students, she said.
Speaking to delegates at the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals' annual meeting at Manchester University, she said the financial pressures of the past decade had meant many universities reducing or giving up extramural work.
"The government hopes that, in developing their contribution to lifelong learning, universities will attach priority to the continuation - and in some cases reconstruction - of their outreach programmes for adults, including those that do not necessarily lead to a formal qualification," Baroness Blackstone said.
Institutions should be providing more short courses delivered in the evenings or at weekends, distance learning, and workshops on employers' premises, as part of an effort to offer new learning opportunities.
They should also take a fresh look at their admissions policies to ensure that they are flexible enough to allow in students with a broad range of qualifications and experience, rather than just the traditional A-level passes.
She asked delegates: "Are you missing promising, perhaps even potentially brilliant, candidates by not being imaginative enough in the way you select people?" The minister indicated that the government was prepared to see a departure from traditional A-level entry requirements to encourage sixth-formers to pursue a broader programme of study.
She said: "It is increasingly clear that the traditional model is wrong - both for young people themselves and for the nation. The traditional post-16 curriculum was designed for a world which no longer exists - a world in which higher education was the preserve of a highly specialised elite."
Martin Harris, CVCP chairman, said he did not think universities were missing brilliant students. "What we have to do is ensure that we are able to stretch the ablest to their limits, but also provide opportunities for everyone," he said.