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Breaking Barriers: Addressing Inequalities in Higher Education through the SMILE Project

The fourth United Nations Development Goal seeks to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning for all.” Despite this, we continue to identify social groups that face obstacles to accessing and completing their degrees in higher education. Women, students with disabilities, low socioeconomic status, and students from migrant backgrounds are still underrepresented and face more significant obstacles than their male, wealthy, and white peers. This is reflected in the enrollment and graduation rates, as well as the teaching staff, institutional administration, and student representation. Let us examine some statistics that demonstrate the persistence of inequalities in Higher Education. 

In 2015, only 21% of full professors in the EU 28 were women, a rate comparable to that of female rectors (21.7%); moreover, female students are less likely than males to enrol in science and engineering graduate programs. Regarding students with migrant backgrounds, third-country nationals are more likely to have a low level of educational achievement (44 % vs 23%  for EU citizens) and are significantly more likely to leave school early (25.8 %). Lastly, students with low socioeconomic status are more unsure about the suitability of higher education and devote less time to study; they are also more likely to have to work part-time and take out student loans. These three categories (women, students with migrant backgrounds, and low socioeconomic status) were not randomly chosen. In fact, they constitute the three pillars, or areas of inequality, on which the SMILE project focuses. This article will focus on the mission and policies developed by the SMILE project, particularly how its work can motivate Higher Education Institutions to address structural inequalities.

The purpose of the SMILE project is to promote inclusive learning by developing, testing, and implementing innovative tools that enhance how higher education institutions deal with diversity and social inclusion. Thanks to a great deal of importance it places on civil society, the project discusses and elaborates on these instruments, including “role models” who represent the three pillars above mentioned. The tools are intended to be disseminated and to encourage Higher Education Institutions to address the disparities that persist in their structures and negatively impact the comfort, motivation, and performance of students, teachers, and staff. The instruments SMILE will develop consist of a Diversity Audit Tool, three CPD (Continuing Professional Development) courses, and a Policy Operational Action Plan. All these tools have the goal of guiding and are addressed to HEIs, and each of them focuses on the three pillars. Before analysing how these instruments can inspire HEIs and address the pillars, let’s examine their operation in detail.

Firstly, the Diversity Audit helps an institution to map the “demography” of its workforce, identifying the main causes of inequalities and the means to overcome them, guaranteeing a safe, diverse and inclusive environment; in this context, SMILE will develop a tool, the SMILE Audit Model, that will enable HEIs to self-reflect on how their institution addresses and facilitates diversity in general; the SMILE Audit Model will be developed, tested, refined, and finalised following consultations with regional stakeholders, and will assist users in implementing a Diversity Audit in Higher Education Institutions by identifying obstacles, existing models, and implementation strategies. HEIs must adopt such a tool due to the multiple benefits it can provide: firstly, it would increase motivation because students and staff would feel included and respected; secondly, it could be an asset for the institution since a more inclusive HEI is also a more attractive one, with significant and positive effects on the number of enrolled and graduated students. Moreover, the SMILE Audit Model will include specific sections on the three areas of work of the project: women in leadership, students with migrant backgrounds, and low-economic status will be the targets of the “self-assessment” foreseen by the Model, and HEIs could find ways to include all categories better thanks to this instrument.

Additionally, SMILE intends to develop three open CPD courses, one for each pillar. A CPD course aimed at academic and non-academic university staff, for instance, will assist in understanding the obstacles faced by students with a migrant background and how to support them. In addition, a second CPD course will be designed for university staff to help them comprehend the obstacles women face in pursuing leadership positions in higher education. Finally, the third CPD course will enable university personnel to become more aware, knowledgeable, and prepared to assist students from lower socioeconomic groups. Even if the three CPD courses differ following their targets, they share the recipients, the structure and the way they will be conducted: they are all aimed at HEI employees and students to teach them how to assist students who experience inequalities and exclusion in higher education; they will also involve role models and individuals from the target groups of the pillars, providing users and students with the opportunity to learn why it is essential to promote inclusion. Within this framework, SMILE has also developed a Diversity in Higher Education introductory course for staff. 

SMILE will then develop a Policy Operational Action Plan, taking into account all the perspectives and experiences gathered throughout the project. This document aims to guide and assist universities in fulfilling and realising their commitment to diversity and social inclusion, particularly in implementing inclusive policies aimed at the three pillars: women, students from low-income backgrounds, and migrants. Meanwhile, SMILE has opened a Facebook and LinkedIn platform, “Inclusive Europe”, where initiatives, publications and programmes from EU institutions, NGOs and Civil Society organisations that concern inclusion in Higher Education are constantly shared. 

Education is a fundamental right. Consequently, it is unfair that some individuals encounter barriers to accessing it. Therefore, we must determine how to include and foster diversity in our higher education institutions. There are several advantages associated with a diverse higher education: students who begin to study and participate in diverse classrooms can learn different perspectives from diverse backgrounds, thereby enhancing their critical thinking; they can also develop skills related to communication and cultural awareness. Without the involvement of civil society and the empowerment of those directly affected by discrimination and exclusion, some students and workers would continue to have fewer opportunities than others. It has been studied how higher education impacts not only  students but also the entire society. The European Higher Education Area as a whole will therefore benefit from inclusive education. As members of civil society and students, we have the means to overcome the obstacles we face in the place where we study. The project SMILE proposes some of them that can be useful if implemented on our campuses. If successful, we may have a chance to ensure that fundamental right which has been guaranteed to us.


Salmi, J., & D’Addio, A. (2021). Policies for achieving inclusion in higher education. Policy Reviews in Higher Education, 5(1), 47-72.

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