Tuesday 22 August 2017

Just deserts! Lecturers escape the gloom in the Bahraini sun

Evelyn O'Donoghue in Bahrain with some of her students
Evelyn O'Donoghue in Bahrain with some of her students

Fancy a job in a country where you pay 1% income tax, where petrol costs 10 cent a litre and year-round sunshine is guaranteed?

Well, it could be you if you want to join the staff of a mould-breaking college on the Persian Gulf.

The Bahrain polytechnic already has 30 Irish staff and will be interviewing in Dublin later this month to recruit the same number again. Its ambition is to become a world-class institution in a country not known for educational excellence.

Bahrain is a small country with a million inhabitants, half of them native. It is regarded as one of the more liberal of the Gulf states. Up to 80,000 cars come across the King Fahd Causeway from Saudi Arabia for a few days' shopping, dining and drinking every week.

There are no religious police but no great tolerance of political dissent either. Immigrants, especially Indian and Bangladeshi migrants who work as housemaids, are not especially well treated but the same cannot be said of the hundreds of Irish who work there and who are very popular.

They are found not just in the polytechnic but also in the local medical school run by the Royal College of Surgeons of Ireland and in several Irish companies located there. You bump into them in the Irish bars where they talk about local GAA football matches.

Irish staff at the Bahrain Polytechnic are on starting packages of €65,000 a year (visit www.polytechnic.bh).

John Scott, the New Zealand-born chief executive is delighted with the calibre of the Irish staff who are playing a key role in developing the polytechnic, which is already proving a big hit with students. It only opened in September 2008 and already has 1,500 full-time students with more applicants than it can take.

"We are embarking on quite a challenging objective which is to have the whole of this institution operate from a problem-based learning environment. This is a challenge for students and staff as most of them come from the old traditional subject-based learning pedagogy.

"We have to design everything around what I describe as the universal curriculum, those skills that people need for the future -- problem solving, research skills, how to use technology, how to present, communicate, and work in teams.

"We recruit staff on the basis of those who understand us. Many of our Irish staff had worked in institutes of technology which are very much outcomes driven and concerned with the process of helping students to learn."

Staff such as James Egan who worked in the IT Carlow and Colm Lynch from Drogheda relish the challenge of breaking new educational ground in a very different culture.

So, too, do husband-and-wife team Tom and Teresa O'Rourke from Co Louth who, with their two children Faye (4) and Sean (3), are enjoying the good life in Bahrain, where they live in a villa complete with shared swimming pool.

'It's not without some drawbacks but you don't hear the word 'recession' here and we love it," says Tom.

The government is hoping that the graduates of the polytechnic will drive the economy away from its present overdependence on oil and is supporting the innovative teaching approach.

The board is made up of the business movers and shakers in Bahrain plus one Irishman, Gerry Murray, chief executive of the Institute of Technologies of Ireland.

Last month, he signed an agreement with the polytechnic that will benefit Irish institutes hugely in the years to come. For example, the National Maritime College, part of the Institute in Cork, is set to play a key role in the development of the maritime skills among the Bahrainis.

Irish Independent

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