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You're welcome back home, Ireland's education minister tells ex-pat teachers

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Irish education minister Joe McHugh
Irish education minister Joe McHugh
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Ireland’s Minister of Education, Joe McHugh, is encouraging teachers in the Middle East to consider returning to work in their home country to plug staffing shortfalls.

The Irish Embassy estimates there are 3,500 Irish teachers in the Gulf countries of Qatar, Kuwait and the UAE, with the majority of them working in the emirates.

During a two-day-visit to the UAE, the minister met with members of the teaching community to gauge their level of interest in repatriating.

Speaking to Euronews during his trip, however, McHugh insisted that he was “not here to poach.”

“My job is to try to figure out ways of making that transition back home a lot easier,” he said. “At the moment, there's a lot of barriers.”

The Irish Embassy in Abu Dhabi recently conducted an online survey of teachers living and working in the region.

Thirty five percent of the 1,002 respondents stated unemployment, or underemployment, in Ireland as a catalyst for their move abroad. Whilst seventy six percent of respondents said they had moved to the Gulf for better financial opportunities.

Poor salary was the most commonly identified barrier for teachers returning to work in Ireland, the survey found, followed by pay inequality for those who qualified after 2011.

“There is a big an anomaly. There's unfinished business, for the 2011 to 2014 cohort, and we've committed just as recently as this Easter to ensuring that we deal with that issue,” said McHugh. “It will be done as part of the public pay talks and there is a mechanism for that. It's an issue that keeps coming up in the staff rooms back home in Ireland. But it's also came up in Hong Kong, Shanghai, Beijing and Abu Dhabi.”

Tax free teaching packages for most of the estimated 2,000 educational professionals working in the emirates often includes free healthcare, subsidised housing and an annual flight home.

Minister McHugh said that Ireland, “can't compete with the packages that are provided,” yet highlighted the fact that most Irish teachers only come to the UAE for a “defined period of time” before repatriating.

The Irish Embassy’s survey pointed to nearly 60 per cent percent of respondents having lived in the Gulf for less than three years, with more than half saying they planned to return to teach in Ireland in the future.

McHugh acknowledged that there was a high level of “frustration” amongst the teachers he had met with in the UAE, who felt their contribution abroad - and their professional worth domestically - was not recognized.

The minister stopped short of calling the dearth of teachers in the Irish education system a crisis, saying that other countries faced similar challenges.

“Look, I think there is an issue of teacher supply right across the European Union,” he said. “Our closest neighbours, even in the United Kingdom, [there’s] a lot of demand for teachers in different specialties.”

Next steps for Ireland, said the minister, would be a symposium meeting in Dublin with the UAE’s Education Minister, Hussain bin Ibrahim Al Hammadi, invited to attend.

“He wants to meet different representation from universities back in Ireland,” said McHugh. “To see about the two-way flow of UAE students going to Ireland and Irish students coming into the UAE. So, there is a big vision. Expo 2020, I think, will be part of that platform.”