Ireland’s Minister of Education and Skills Joe McHugh begins his two-day visit to the UAE today with a focus on meeting some of the estimated 2,000 Irish teachers working in the Emirates. At home, there is a shortage of teachers, but McHugh emphasises that his visit is "not about enticing or convincing teachers to return home I am not in the UAE on a recruitment campaign."
"Our entire focus," he told the Emirates News Agency, WAM, " is about understanding some of the issues that are of concern to Irish teachers working in the UAE if and when they decide that they would like to return home."
McHugh worked himself as a teacher in the Emirates in the 1990s, teaching A level economics in Dubai. That experience taught him, he said, that "a decision to leave home is not an easy one. And a decision to stay away can be just as difficult."
McHugh insists that there will continue to be a role for Irish teachers in the Emirates. Ireland, he said, "has a long tradition of educators working around the world There will always be an interest in both Irish teachers seeking a career challenge in the UAE and all that it has to offer."
When they do so, he said, "they are experiencing a new culture and gaining valuable lessons in life, as well as developing their teaching skills."
The high reputation of Irish teachers, the Minister suggested, derives from the special nature of the country’s initial teacher education programmes. These, he said, are "deeply rooted in cultural regard for the power and importance of education to change lives for the better."
During his visit, McHugh will also be visiting the Dubai campus of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, RCSI, which opened in 2005. Numerous Emirati students have graduated from the RCSI in Ireland, and McHugh describes the College as "a flagbearer for Irish education in the Gulf and wider Middle Eastern region."
Students from the UAE continue, however, to study at RCSI in Ireland, as well as at other institutions, with currently between 200-250 students from the Emirates undertaking undergraduate and postgraduate programmes. Ireland, the Minister claims, is an ideal choice for those seeking a destination for their higher education. "We have increased the number of fully funded Government of Ireland Scholarships from 21 to 60 and are seeing how else they can be improved," McHugh added.
"Ireland is a gateway between Europe and the US, the only English speaking country that uses the Euro currency," he said. "We are a centre of excellence in research and innovation benefitting from valuable European funding." An independent survey, he noted, had ranked Ireland the top country in the European Union for international student satisfaction for the last two years running.
Ireland, he said, offers students from the Emirates "high-quality education, exposure to cutting edge research and the chance to launch an international career."
Ireland has the fastest-growing economy in Europe and more than 1,000 multinational companies based in Ireland " are ready to tap into the highly educated and skilled graduates in our third level sector, " he said.
As befits a Minister of Education and Skills, McHugh is a keen advocate of sport and, during his years in Dubai, he helped to form the first club for Ireland’s GAA – Gaelic Athletics Association – in the UAE. Asked what could be done to encourage Emiratis to take up sports like Gaelic football, he suggested "The first step is to go and watch a game or get out and play it. The GAA is about community. It’s a sense of togetherness."
He claimed that "there really is only one team worth watching and that’s obviously Donegal."
McHugh represents Donegal in the Irish Parliament.
Besides a stronghold of Gaelic football, Donegal is also part of the Gaeltacht, those parts of the west of the country that are the strongholds of the Irish language. McHugh happily offers the suggestion that the Embassy would be delighted to help any Emiratis who might like to learn the language. "A fantastic place to go on that journey (of learning Gaelic) is Oideas Gael in the Donegal Gaeltacht," he says. "An inspiring setting and inspiring learning."
Donegal, at the north-western corner of the island of Ireland, is nearly surrounded on land by Northern Ireland, part of the United Kingdom. When the United Kingdom leaves the European Union, the imposition of a ‘hard’ border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland could have a particularly serious impact on Donegal.
"There are obviously deep concerns among people in Ireland over the threat of a hard border," McHugh says. "The Irish Government has to put plans in place to mitigate against the negative aspects of Brexit but our focus at all times has been in solidarity with the European Union, that the best way to avoid a hard border is for the regulations on the island of Ireland to be aligned."
"It will be the best solution for our people, for our agriculture, for our industry and for future relations north-south and east-west with the United Kingdom," he concluded.