- 24 Jan 23
RTÉ’s Education Correspondent Emma O’Kelly talks about her education journey, and offers some advice for students applying for the CAO.
“I was in secondary school in Limerick and I didn’t have a clue what to do,” says RTÉ Education Correspondent Emma O’Kelly, recalling her own time of muddling through course brochures. “I followed advice from my mother’s friend and did English and History in Trinity College. There’s an idea those degrees don’t have high value, but I’m working at RTÉ, surrounded by arts graduates!”
Entering media wasn’t straightforward for O’Kelly.
“When I left college, I was leaning towards journalism,” she explains. “It’s about knowing what you enjoy doing, and then figuring out how to get paid to do it. I’m interested in people’s lives and enjoy writing, so I went to the guidance counsellor in Trinity to ask about applying for a Masters in journalism. I got a very negative response – he said I would need a first class honours degree and it wouldn’t particularly suit me. He suggested I go into PR instead. I was absolutely crestfallen! I lost confidence and scotched the idea of journalism.
“I emigrated to Spain and a few months later he sent my family application forms for PR courses. It just felt wrong. I believed that people like me didn’t become journalists. It took me two years to realise I could do it and apply to DCU.”
Emma’s breaking stories on RTÉ were crucial during the pandemic.
“Education was intensely busy, because you had schools closing and exams being cancelled,” she reflects. “It was a very high pressure area. The pace of the news environment is insatiable, especially because of social media. On my education beat, having a network of sources is the most valuable thing. I rely on teachers, school principals and parents to feel they can pick up the phone, or send me an email, when they feel something has gone wrong.
“It’s hard to get access to the information elsewhere. You can’t send an FOI request to the biggest education provider in the country, the Catholic Church, or the schools they run. That’s a huge barrier.”
What is the biggest issue facing third-level students this year?
“From the perspective of students, it is absolutely the cost of living,” says Emma. “The price of going to college and finding accommodation. Students are facing massive commutes, because they can’t possibly find a place to live close to their college. Also, there is the huge demand for placements on courses and the skill shortage in society. We have a massive lack of doctors, nurses, teachers and bus drivers. The CAO points demanded for certain areas are still ridiculously high. It’s also difficult to get a spot on a nursing or teaching course. I have one son who graduated recently from college so I’ve been through it as a parent!”
Much of the conversation appears to revolve around grade inflation.
“At second level, it occurred for understandable reasons,” says O’Kelly. “Students looked for concessions from the government and they were listened to. Gradually, we will see an adjustment back to pre-pandemic levels. There’s also inflation of grades in terms of students receiving firsts in universities and colleges. Different mechanisms were used, like open book exams. I would like to see more scrutiny of grade inflation long-term at third level.”
The ESRI released a mental health survey in 2022 with deeply worrying results. Around 40% of young men and 55% of young women had experienced symptoms of depression, with the majority of participants in third-level education.
“Lecturers tell me about the levels of stress, depression and mental breakdowns they are witnessing among their students,” says Emma. “It’s higher than they have ever seen before. They are describing an epidemic – an emergency. Secondary schools and primary schools are saying the same thing. It’s a terrible situation. When it comes to third level students, the challenges include accommodation and the cost of living crisis, but the wider political situation as well. It’s environmental concerns. It is not surprising that young people are looking at the world around them and feeling hopeless about their future. A lot more money should be spent on mental support and the causes that need to be dealt with.”
Does O’Kelly have any words of wisdom for 2023’s prospective students?
“Opt into a pathway you’ll enjoy, whether that is college or an apprenticeship or a PLC,” she says. “In terms of encouraging people to go down non-traditional routes, the decision has to be guided by that person’s passions. If you feel like a specific career is a path you want to pursue, don’t be discouraged by anyone’s negativity.”
Read the full Education Special in the current issue of Hot Press:
- Lifestyle & Sports
- 24 Jan 23