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Five minute interview: Geoff Russell


At last week's Business & Skills Expo, Verity Gough caught up with recently appointed CEO of the Learning and Skills Council, Geoff Russell, to find out his plans for the LSC and ask: What's the real deal with the Train to Gain funding?

Firstly can you tell me how you came to take on this role – with such controversy surrounding the LSC, did you relish the challenge?

“Well I came into it because I was asked to and I accepted the role because it was always my intention to move into the public sector. I had been on secondment to the Treasury for a couple of years with my previous company and enjoyed that, then when I retired from that firm and wanted to move into the public sector, the opportunity arose and it seemed like a pretty interesting challenge and obviously the LSC does some very important things and it has an pretty exciting agenda and it seemed like an opportunity to help.”

You clearly have your work cut out for you when it comes to sorting out the FE college capital scheme, Train to Gain and education maintenance allowances (EMAs). What takes priority?

“The priority is to try to continue to get the LSC to adapt the way it operates to the economic circumstances that we are in which to a large extent underpins some of the issues you have just described. We have moved from being an organisation that stimulates demand to one whose main job is to manage demand and being that the type of organisational structure; the management of information and the way we run ourselves, it is quite different to the way we used to run ourselves. The LSC is a rather large, complicated organisation, it employs a lot of people and spends a lot of government money so it’s not easy to change that over night but I think we are making significant progress and that’s my real priority. But whatever type of programme you are talking about it’s all going to be about managing demand as opposed to just stimulating demand and we need to be as well equipped as we can to do that management.”

"We have put more money in this year than we did last and we’ll put more money in next year than we did this year. That was never the issue"
It is a period of change for the government’s skills agenda – the abolition of the DIUS for example and even your own appointment at the LSC - are you positive about the changes you can make to the current system?

“I think I would be inhuman if I didn’t want to see some positive changes impact on the things that I have implemented in the last three months. I don’t think there is any doubt that that whole thing excites me but I am extremely confident we will get where we need to get to, it’s just not going to be easy.”

You acknowledge that you have got a big job ahead of you...

“That is an understatement. It’s a very challenging task. Very challenging.

You mention that there was new funding on the cards, I was going to ask how the LSC could possibly move forwards without a cash injection of some sorts but it does sounds like there is some new money coming in...

“There was never any question...I mean we have put more money in this year than we did last and we’ll put more money in next year than we did this year. That was never the issue...”

But where is it coming from?

“That’s not the issue, the money is there - it’s just that we moved from the last few years of under-spending our budgets – two years ago, we under-spent our College Capital budget by £135m and last year we under-spent our Train to Gain budget – that is not the problem this year. The problem is demand for all our programmes this year, well almost all of them - partly because we have been successful at stimulating that demand and our providers have been very successful at delivering it, but all of that being exacerbated by the effects of what happened very, very quickly as a result of the recession.

"The LSC is a rather large, complicated organisation, it employs a lot of people and spends a lot of government money so it’s not easy to change that over night."

“You know it would be nice if we had our crystal ball, nice and sharply focused, but we, like most other people didn’t have our crystal ball and couldn’t predict the impact of the recession. So we have moved very quickly in a short space of time from demand for stimulation to demand management. The point is not that we are cutting back on funding – we are increasing it but it may not be enough to fund what people would like us to.”

So let’s hope that the green shoots that everyone is talking about will change the fortunes of Train to Gain...

“Well I hope you are right with the changing economy – but I think there are still some challenges ahead and I think it will be a while before it has a significant impact on the areas that we fund...”

How would you like to see the training landscape in the next five years?

“I would like to see some of the ambitions that we have stimulated and some of the policies that we have recently announced secluded in a kind of joined-up, integrated, strategic way so that the future organisations that the LSC will become will play a hand in balancing the demand of high skills and keep the economy moving forward successfully globally – and managing that demand against the supply of necessary skills both in terms of quality and quantity and have a balance between those things in a very cost effective way. And even if the economy does start turning around, it’s going to be quite some time before we see the increase in public spending that we have seen over the last ten years so that is going to be a key theme for quite a few years to come, to make sure we are ruthless in terms of being as efficient and effective as we can be.”

Finally, if there is one thing that you would like to be remembered for in your role at the LSC, what would it be?

“It would be gratifying for me to think that I could put the LSC to bed in a way that recognises how remarkably successful it has been, you know, it’s had some challenges…but at the same time do so in a way that leaves a legacy for the successor organisations to be more successful. If I could feel that I have played a part in that, that that would be very satisfying.”

You can also read Verity Gough's feature 'Where has all the funding gone?' here

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