Cambridge University is to open its doors to students from disadvantaged backgrounds who show great potential but have not met the entry grades.
Vice-chancellor Prof Toope said it was time to dispel the stereotype of the highly selective university as a “bastion of privilege”.
Under the plan, some students who have faced “educational challenge” will be asked to join a transition programme.
Presently, entry to Cambridge requires at least three As or A*s at A-level.
Applicants also need to perform well in an interview.
But, last year, data revealed that four-fifths of students accepted at Oxford and Cambridge universities between 2010 and 2015 had parents with top professional and managerial jobs.
And Cambridge was further criticised for its relatively low recruitment rate of black students. Last year, 58 black students were admitted across the university.
Under the transition programme, candidates who show promise of excellence but may have come up against barriers to achieving their full potential may join a three-week bridging scheme or attend a foundation year designed to help them reach the required standard for Cambridge entry.
In a speech marking the start of term, Prof Toope said: “We cannot be truly great as a university if – even inadvertently – we are not open to the social and cultural diversity of the world around us.
“I would go as far as to ask,’ Can we call ourselves a place of excellence if we are not fully inclusive of the most diverse talent?’
“This is not just a matter of box-ticking.
“For me, it goes even beyond acknowledging the obvious fact that all of us benefit in countless ways from teaching, learning, researching and working in environments where diverse nationalities, ethnicities, skill-sets, world-views or family backgrounds enrich one another.”
Prof Toope said it was an ethical issue for Cambridge and the university could expect to receive public support only if it was prepared to encourage top talent “regardless of where it flows from”.
But he said: “We will not lower our academic standards for admission.
“We will, however, continue to actively encourage applications from those eligible students – undergraduate and postgraduate, from the UK and from overseas – who may have been disadvantaged as a result of their educational journey.”
Cambridge is aiming to raise at least £500 million to attract and support undergraduate and postgraduate students from around the world on the programme.