Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 June 2019

Irish minister: I'm not in the UAE to poach teachers

Joe McHugh to meet hundreds of Irish teachers here in bid to smooth the path for them to return

Irish education minister, Joe McHugh, will meet with Irish teachers in the UAE over the course of two days. Victor Besa / The National 
Irish education minister, Joe McHugh, will meet with Irish teachers in the UAE over the course of two days. Victor Besa / The National 

Ireland’s minister for education said he was not here to recruit the thousands of Irish teachers working in the UAE.

Despite shortages across the sector in Ireland, Joe McHugh stressed he only wanted to make it easier for those who wished to return.

Speaking to The National on Wednesday - before the first of two meetings with hundreds of teachers - Mr McHugh said the Irish government is making a major push to address concerns over pay inequality and a lack of permanent positions.

“We have shortages and we have supply issues,” said Mr McHugh, who is on a two-day visit to the UAE. “But it is not about poaching teachers.”

He said the impact and sacrifice made by Irish teachers in the UAE had often gone unrecognised. But this was going to change.

“They are here working really hard, working long hours [so] it is about how we respond to their needs and at the moment there is a vacuum.”

Of the 10,000 Irish residents in the UAE, close to 2,500 are working in education. A survey carried out by Ireland’s embassy in Abu Dhabi ahead of his trip noted that while a majority planned to return, a massive 86 per cent said the quality of life in the UAE is better. Teachers have previously spoken of their frustration at education chiefs back in Ireland.

“There are incentives in the UAE such as remuneration - teachers aren’t paying tax on salaries,” he said. “The cost of living in Dublin [Ireland’s capital] is also a factor.”

One of the big sticking points is pay. Cutbacks following the 2008 recession reduced the salaries for new teachers. This led many to take up a more lucrative offer in the UAE.

“There is an inequality of pay issue,” he said. “I’ve got the commitment from the government that we are going to address that. It is a massive issue. It is unfinished business,” he said.

“That won’t happen today … because it involves pay talks. But the government will address that issue.”

Another major initiative is the launch of an online portal to match jobseekers with offers in Ireland. Turas Abhaile - which translated to "the journey home" from Irish - will also feature tips on the relocation process. More also needs to be done to show how the experience gained by teachers in the UAE can benefit an increasingly plural Ireland, he said.

Mr McHugh worked as a teacher in Dubai in the 1990s, when he was just 26, playing a role in the establishment of the Dubai Celts sports organisation. Reflecting on this time in Dubai, he said he understands the loneliness and alienation people can feel when abroad.

“I was homesick as hell for the first three months and I remember the yearning for a letter. Some may be struggling so I can try to relate to that,” he said.

“I do feel that teachers out here will have a feeling of alienation and [being] forgotten about and that’s why this trip is not just about me.”

After the trip ends, links between teachers in the Emirates and the education sector back home must be maintained, he said.

“The most important thing is the follow up,” he said. “The embassy will [say] there is more to do in the engagement bit."

Mr McHugh’s visit also involved high-level meetings with the UAE’s education minister and visits to universities and schools across the country.

He also paid tribute to the young Irish teacher killed in last week’s horror bus crash. Fiona Geraghty, 27 was a passenger in the bus that was returning from Oman when it crashed into an overhead barrier in Dubai.

“It is the ultimate tragedy for any family, particularly a teacher with such spirit,” he said.

“She embodied everything about what an Irish teacher is trying to do out here.”

Updated: June 12, 2019 09:22 PM

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