Autonomy, legitimacy and confidence: using mainstream curriculum to successfully widen participation

Marr, Elizabeth; Curry, George and Rose-Adams, John (2013). Autonomy, legitimacy and confidence: using mainstream curriculum to successfully widen participation. In: Murray, Neil and Klinger, Christopher M. eds. Aspirations, Access and Attainment: International Perspectives on Widening Participation and an Agenda for Change. Abingdon: Routledge, pp. 123–135.



The Open University is unique in the UK in that access to its higher education courses is open. But open-ness can be both curse and blessing. It provides a vital opportunity, however early-leaver and qualification rates can also be high.

In response to this, the OU developed a dedicated curriculum aimed at supporting those who lack confidence in their ability to study at this level. Openings courses are flexibly deployed in a variety of contexts and locations: as mainstream curriculum, in outreach and in partnership. The success of Openings is illustrated by student performance data: those who began their studies with Openings are statistically more likely to succeed.

The OU is not unique in offering individuals the opportunity to develop higher level learning skills at the start of their studies. What is different is that Openings’ skills development is embedded and deployed from within a wide range of subject-specific courses.

Experience of working on Openings over twelve years suggests that the required skills are those which support the development of learner autonomy, encourage agency and foster a legitimate student identity. In this sense there is no clear distinction between support for the learner and support for learning.

This chapter considers aspects of Openings that have remained unchanged, specifically the presence of essential skills, carefully differentiated from modes of learning. The chapter also considers aspects of social, cultural, political, technical and economic change and their impact on developments in Openings.

The authors argue that the core attributes of learner autonomy, confidence and legitimacy should be the primary focus for all introductory modules intended to widen access. Furthermore, the three cognitive higher level learning skills - creating, evaluating and analysing - can and should be fully embedded in the subject areas that are the primary interest of learners.

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