Bright youngsters whose disadvantaged backgrounds would normally rule them out of a prestigious higher education place are being targeted by new schemes at Oxford University.

Following mounting criticism of a lack of diversity among students, the university wants to usher in a “sea change” in how it goes about its annual admissions that will ensure one in four undergraduates come from poorly represented backgrounds by 2023 – up from the current rate of 15%.

The university will aim to hit its target through free programmes that offer places to clever pupils who would otherwise struggle to meet the final entry requirements because of their demographic, or who need help in making the transition to life at one of the highest-rated institutions in the country.

OXFORD, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 08: Students walk past the Radcliffe Camera building in Oxford city centre as Oxford University commences its academic year on October 8, 2009 in Oxford, England. Oxford University has a student population in excess of 20,000 taken from over 140 countries around the world.
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The university has been criticised for the number of undergraduates it takes in from poorer backgrounds

Opportunity Oxford will target students from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds who have applied in the normal way and are on course to gain the required grades, but need help to make the jump from school.

It will offer structured study at home and then two weeks of residential study at the university ahead of the new term.

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The second scheme, Foundation Oxford, will be a full-year programme open to students who have experienced severe disadvantage or educational disruption and would therefore fail to present a competitive application.

Eligible students could include refugees and children in care, or with care responsibilities themselves, and offers will be made on the basis of lower contextual A-level grades, rather than standard offers.

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Those who join either scheme – which have a combined 250 places for state school students – will be based at Oxford colleges and will move on to their chosen undergraduate degree upon completion of their programme.

The vice-chancellor at Oxford, Professor Louise Richardson, said: “This is a sea change in Oxford admissions.

“Colleagues from across the university, its colleges and departments have united behind a commitment to accelerate the pace at which we are diversifying our student body and ensuring that every academically exceptional student in the country knows that they have a fair chance of a place at Oxford.”

The commitment from Oxford has been welcomed by those campaigning for fairer access to the best universities.

Chris Millward, director for fair access and participation at the Office for Students, said the two schemes were a “positive step in the right direction”, but that more still needed to be done.

He said: “The Office for Students has, and will continue to, put pressure on these universities to close the gaps which mean five times more students from advantaged backgrounds are admitted compared to their disadvantaged peers.”