Graduate attributes: Social constructions and lived experience of university students in Ireland




Ireland, higher education, education policy, student life, higher education instiutions


Aim. This paper examines how dominant understandings of students in third-level education in Ireland are reflected in national policies, filtered through the official and aspirational texts issued by Irish colleges, and negotiated and contested by students. Specifically, we investigate the discrepancies between the perceived needs of students in third-level education as imagined in government policies and promoted by higher education institutions, and the lived realities of students who grapple with multiple challenges brought about by structural failures in housing and higher education funding policy.

Methods. Through documentary analysis and primary qualitative data on student experiences, we examine how the imagined figure of the third-level student/graduate becomes imbued with the aspirations of multiple stakeholders: policymakers, academic institutions, and potential employers - in ways that conflict with the lived realities of students.

Results. We find that students are caught between the ambitions and expectations of an education system that pushes them into higher education without the requisite and adequate supports.

Conclusion. The ideal graduate is expected to embody the nation’s hope for future success as well as to uphold the alma mater’s reputation among employers. Couched in this rhetoric of the graduate as the beacon of hope, however, are deeper failings of a welfare state that is still battling the aftermath of recession. These failures are projected onto students, manifesting in a very real way in their minds and lives as they struggle to balance between institutional, family and personal expectations, the demands of daily life and future plans.


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Author Biographies

AYESHAH EMON, Ph.D., School of Social Work and Social Policy, Trinity College Dublin, Ireland

Born in Pakistan, Dr. Émon is a Fulbright scholar who received her doctorate in medical anthropology and gender studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her dissertation focused on infertility and assisted reproductive technologies, particularly the cultural aspects of gamete donation, and was ranked amongst the best cultural anthropology dissertations of 2012. Her publication, “A donor by no name is just another number? The management of anonymity in US cryobanks” (2017) provided a theory of anonymity and how it operates in the cryobanking profession. Dr. Émon has served as the co-director of Eve Ensler’s Vagina Monologues and its South Asian American counterpart, Yoni Ki Baat, between 2006-2014 and has co-authored, “Refiguring the Hijra: Performing the ‘Third Gender’ in Yoni ki Baat,” with Dr. Christine Garlough on the performance of gender and sexuality. She has also
contributed to a book chapter, “Cultural Activism and Sexuality in Feminist Performance,” in Dr. Garlough’s book “Desi Divas: Political Activism in South Asian American Cultural Performances (2013).
Dr. Émon has designed and delivered several undergraduate courses in anthropology, social policy, global health and intersectional theory, and has advised both undergraduate and Masters level students. Currently, her work focuses on third level education and social policy within the context of Ireland.

Virpi Timonen, Ph.D., School of Social Work and Social Policy, Trinity College Dublin, Ireland

A Finnish national who earned her doctorate at the University of Oxford, Dr.Timonen's work focuses on the sociology of ageing and social policies as they are unfolding in ageing societies. She has published nearly 100 peer-reviewed articles, books and chapters on the human life course from youth to old age, including widely-cited contributions to understanding later lives in the context of intergenerational relations within families and societies. She has rapidly growing citations arising from her research methodological expertise in Grounded Theory. 

Dr. Timonen has authored several books including a well-received theoretical treatise “Beyond successful and active ageing: A theory of model ageing” (2016); and edited “Contemporary grandparenting” (2012), the first book on grandparenting in global contexts, followed by (at publisher's request) “Grandparenting practices around the world” (2018). These books are the first compilations of research on grandparenting from all continents. 

In 2014-2018, Dr. Timonen served as the elected President of the Research Committee on the Sociology of Ageing (RC11) of the International Sociological Association (ISA), the largest global scholarly community of social gerontologists. 

Additionally, Dr. Timonen has designed and delivered several undergraduate courses, and authored “Ageing societies: A comparative introduction” – a major undergraduate textbook. She is one of the key instructors in a massive open online course (MOOC) on ageing that was launched in February 2016, with an expected global audience of 40,000 learners




How to Cite

EMON, A., & Timonen, V. (2019). Graduate attributes: Social constructions and lived experience of university students in Ireland. Journal of Education Culture and Society, 10(2), 133–147.