The University for Industry began the official rollout of its £84 million Learndirect network this week.
At events across the United Kingdom, television celebrities signed up for courses offered by the online learning initiative. Education secretary David Blunkett and learning and technology minister Michael Wills officiated at the launch, where Learndirect facilities run by Unipart, the Trades Union Congress and Sainsbury's were also announced.
Anne Wright, chief executive of the UfI, said: "This is the first online learning network. It will offer courses on basic skills right up to postgraduate level." She added that the UfI is particularly keen to attract small businesses.
The launch had been delayed after the Association of Colleges wrote to its members advising them not to sign up for contracts because of concerns over liability in the event of problems with the service. Professor Wright said that a refunds policy had been introduced into the contracts and that most have joined the project.
Learndirect has 700 learning centres across England, Scotland and Wales (soon to be extended to Northern Ireland) and so far, 36,000 learners have enrolled on 77,000 courses. The UfI plans to have 1,000 centres by 2001, extending its enrolment tally to 1 million by 2003.
According to the UfI, internet courses have so far proved the most popular, along with word processing. Business courses are also in demand.