On a cold Wednesday morning, filled with stress for the upcoming exams, we got the opportunity to speak with prof. dr. Ayse Saka-Helmhout, who recently got a very prestigious promotion. Our need for good coffee was luckily fulfilled, after which we could start an interview with the professor, who was born and raised in England. She told us all about the unique Dutch university environment, Radboud University in particular.
Ayse was born to Turkish parents in Birmingham. After being raised there, she decided to go to Warwick Business school, where she got her doctorate. 13 years ago, she sought more academic experience, and add to that the fact that she found love with a Dutch gentleman, you would not be surprised that she took an opportunity in Groningen for a project on organisational learning. In 2007, she went back to the UK to be appointed as a Reader (Associate Professor) because of her disgruntlement with the Dutch seniority-based promotion system. This meant that people who worked longer deserved better spots. However, she came back to the Netherlands in 2014, to join the Strategic Management subject group as an associate professor. And to top it all off, she recently got a promotion in comparative management, which is all about dealing with cultural and institutional differences across countries.
Indeed, if there is someone with an international identity, it is mrs. Saka-Helmhout. In addition to being born to Turkish parents in England, she spent seven years at an American school in Bahrain; 12 years studying and working in England; and subsequently settling down with a Dutch husband in the Netherlands. It is clear that when it comes to identifying cultural differences, she is an expert. Therefore we were curious for her perception of the Netherlands, and specifically Radboud University.
You need two people to tango
One comparison mrs. Saka-Helmhout made between the Netherlands and the UK, is that the Dutch are more egalitarian, which means that the gap between the rich and the poor is smaller here. She likes the fact that the Dutch, and in particular Nijmegeners, are more compassionate, because it is a nurturing environment in which they help each other. One thing she did need to get used to was the straight-forwardness of the Dutch, which she initially found awkward.
We also asked how the Radboud University differs from English universities. She came up with a quick response, saying that in the Netherlands there is a stronger research orientation in education. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but according to her, the relatively limited attention to practical relevance could cause loss of interest among students. ‘’But students who like research (especially Asian students) really respect this, whereas British students for example could find it less interesting.’’ The working floor also has notable differences: ‘’I have seen how competitive universities can be hindering morale. Radboud University has a very humane atmosphere, with high collegiality and people helping each other. In the Anglo-Saxon world it is some sort of taboo to talk about private issues.’’
Cultural differences also reaches the student level. Of course, the majority of students in the Netherlands generally has the main priority of just passing their courses, which can result in a lack of motivation. Mrs. Saka-Helmhout recognises this, and believes that you need two people to tango, which means that she gives her main attention to the truly motivated students; as she finds students that do not show dedication are harder to motivate. Another challenge for universities is linking theories with society’s demands, by making students see that theories taught are applicable in the real world. Guest lectures are helpful because practitioners’ words sink in more than pure academic research. Moreover, she argues that high student evaluations come from theatrical performances. ‘’A colleague in England told me that drama lessons could come in handy. A challenge for professors is balancing entertainment and content.’’
As a final remark she argues that internationalisation can be a great opportunity for Radboud University, to get even more internationally acclaimed. Does this mean that all departments have to be internationalised? ‘’No, not necessarily, as some of what we research targets the Dutch society. There should be focus on local and international aspects where the context deems it relevant.’’ Overall mrs. Saka-Helmhout enjoys living and working here; she is very content with the work environment and the students, and she is proud to be part of the community.