Powerbrokers: HE leaders understanding Westminster


Vijaya Nath, shares insights from the first Powerbrokers: lifting the lid on the Westminster village programme, which took place earlier this month.

‘So were you for Brexit or not?’ This question raised an eyebrow or two as we observed select committee hearings on the implications of Brexit for the justice system. The witnesses ‘on the spike’ included Professor Tim Wilson, professor of criminal justice policy at Northumbria University. This brief, but timely look at the world of parliamentary select committee hearings provided valuable stimulus during our recent Powerbrokers programme.

Powerbrokers: lifting the lid on the Westminster village emerged from a conversation and formal exploration with over 40 senior leaders in higher education on the skillset, mind-set and toolset they believed they needed as leaders to take their institution forward. Over the duration of this new two-day programme participants were exposed to the workings of Westminster gaining along the way a more intimate understanding of how they could, as leaders exert more influence politically for the benefit of their institutions and student populations.

Observing the interactions between leaders of both HEIs and sector agencies and the selection of MPs, peers and civil servants who worked with us on this programme – three key insights struck me as instrumental in their individual and collective leadership going forward.

Insight 1: Seeking first to understand and then be understood

Critical to gaining this insight was deepening participants understanding of where higher education sits in the priority list of our political leaders at Westminster. Through frank and intimate discussion with existing peers and MPs; leaders it was quickly established that whilst higher education did not have the column inches or status ‘enjoyed’ by the NHS and health it was as a sector, important to the UK’s future and in a post Brexit world even more important. At the same time higher education leaders heard the importance of higher education leadership needing to be relevant and pragmatic, as opposed to idealistic or theoretical. In the words of one peer “leaders who bring solutions and not problems” would as expected be listened to over those who sought to “bang on about depleting student numbers post Brexit” for example.

Understanding what keeps your MP awake at night with regards to any issues in the university, whether it be about student or staff welfare issues, and communicating with them in advance of a crisis was also viewed as being appreciated. In addition to this was the plea to build more transformational relationships with local political leaders – not just view them as great to wheel out for opening a new department, but looking at what local challenges they are trying to tackle and what the university, college or specialist institution could do to help.

Insight 2: Communication skills matter

During both days of the programme higher education leaders consistently worked to understand and respond to the pace and intensity of questioning and the full range of communication skills needed to be effective at local, national and international government level. Developing the language of influence was seen to be as important as the content. Being able to move from demonstrating Intelligence Quotient (IQ) to Emotional Quotient (EQ) is an area that all those participating on the programme agreed was vital.

Insight 3: Build relationships of trust

Like all interactions between leaders we go much further when we are able to demonstrate that most basic and foundation of leadership – trust.

Often when pressed political and higher education leaders said to give trust they needed to get trust. Interestingly this takes me back to the first sentence in this blog post, which was asked by an MP, in a real select committee evidence session. Whether we believe this was the right question to ask or whether it breaks protocol – it asks individuals to reveal their personal decision in a manner that suggests that this would impact on the credibility of their evidence. Credibility – an interpersonal construct is something that we use to determine the quality of our political leaders, on Powerbrokers we heard that this was also a quality that political leaders were looking for from higher education.

This look at how higher education interacted with Westminster on this our newest programme reinforces that our decision to co-create (a much used  phrase at present in higher education) was the right one and more than this, the diagnosis higher education leaders made of their development requirements was accurate.

I look forward to facilitating the next run of Powerbrokers: Lifting the lid on the Westminster village  which runs on Tuesday 25 – Wednesday 26 April 2017, when once more we will begin the process of supporting our leaders in higher education to exert the influence we know that our students and staff deserve, so that the UK’s higher education sector builds on its considerable achievements in challenging times.

To find out more or book a place on the spring 2017 run of  Powerbrokers: Lifting the lid on the Westminster village  please click here