AONTAS in Europe: EUCEN Autumn Conference and Smile Symposium

8 Jan 2024
Writing by Ecem Akarca, EU Projects Coordinator.

We’re always working with our European colleagues to achieve our collective goals of making education more accessible for everyone.

EUCEN Autumn Conference and Smile Symposium: Takeaways on Diversity and Inclusion

Last year, I had the fantastic opportunity to attend the EUCen Autumn Conference and the Smile Symposium in vibrant Barcelona on November 16 and 17, 2023. Established in 1991, EUCen is the largest multidisciplinary association for University Lifelong Learning in Europe.

We represent Ireland in lifelong learning in Europe through our research and advocacy activities. We are partners with EUCen in the Partner UP European project. The insights shared at the two-day event opened my eyes to the current challenges and triumphs of the adult learning sector.

The Smile Symposium, a collaboration between EUCen and the Fundació Solidaritat UB, was a revelation. It spotlighted how universities are navigating diversity, inclusion, and the evolving role of lifelong learning. It was a packed event, with professionals coming from all over the world. I was so happy to come across representatives from Ireland, such as Lilian Nwanze, a board member at AONTAS and a researcher at Maynooth University, and Camilla Fitzsimons from Maynooth University. I also met Lyndsey El Amoud from University College Cork, and Allison Kenneally and Clare Power from South-East Technological University.


Awardee Spotlight

A pivotal moment during the symposium was the SMILE Awards on Diversity 2023. Allison Kenneally from South-East Technological University received the top award for their fantastic project, "Moving Beyond the Binary – Collaborating to Embed Sustainable & Inclusive Gender Equality in the Irish HE Sector." Big congrats to them!

Over the two enlightening days, the symposium delved deep into diversity and inclusion in higher education. Insightful presentations from global experts fueled our collective understanding of these crucial topics. A standout was the dynamic panel featuring Lilian Nwanze, and also Matthew Weait from Oxford University. Their dialogue explored the nexus between theory and reality in diversity and inclusion, offering diverse perspectives on a shared challenge.

The SMILE Project: Transforming Perspectives

I want to highlight the incredible SMILE project, which aims to promote inclusive learning by developing, testing and implementing innovative tools that improve the way higher education institutions deal with diversity and social inclusion. 

The SMILE project zeroes in on three critical areas of inequality and disadvantage in higher education:

  1. Learners with Migrant Background
  2. Women in Leadership
  3. Learners with Low Socio-economic Status

Groundbreaking Tools

CPD Courses:

SMILE has developed Continuing Professional Development (CPD) courses for university staff—both academic and non-academic. These courses aim to better equip staff to address the needs of students from diverse backgrounds. A bottom-up approach involves input from role models, NGOs, and community groups, ensuring a rich tapestry of experiences. These courses could be great resources and inspiration for adult learning providers as well. Have a look here:

SMILE Audit Model:

A pioneering set of tools has been created to allow Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) to self-reflect on their approach to diversity. This includes a Preliminary Self-Assessment Tool and the SMILE Audit Model. These tools, originally designed for universities, are now adaptable for adult learning providers. You can download the self assessment tool and see may useful resources at the Smile website. Explore the SMILE Audit Model here:

Future Awaits: Cork 2024!

The 54th eucen conference in Cork, from May 29 to 31 in 2024, promises to be another enlightening chapter. The topic next year will be “University Lifelong Learning Leading Positive Change in Challenging Times” More information here:

I would like to thank the organizers, speakers, and participants for creating a vibrant platform for dialogue and learning. This collaborative effort represents a significant step forward in advancing the cause of diversity and inclusion in education. Cheers to Carme Royo and all the EUCen Team for an incredible event!

This blog post is part of AONTAS' 2022-2023 project ‘Inclusive Recovery and Transformation: Adult Learning Post-Covid-19’ as part of the New European Agenda for Adult Learning.