Baffled or curious would-be students can now phone a friend at the Learndirect helpline, reports Martin Whittaker.
A CALLER from Bootle in Merseyside is on the line. She saw an advert in her local newspaper for free computer training and wants to know more.
"I just need to ask you a couple of questions," says information adviser Caroline Starling. "Are you looking for courses in the Bootle area? And is it a basic computer course you're looking for?"
She taps a key and a list of courses appears on her screen. "We've actually got courses at Hugh Baird College. Have you got a pen handy?"
It is mid-afternoon and the Manchester offices of Learn-
direct, the University for Industry's (UFI) learning and careers telephone helpline, are busy.
An electronic display shows 2,497 calls today. Five minutes later, another 32 have come in.
According to the UFI, the helpline has exceeded all expectations since its launch in February 1998. Its first year's target was a quarter of a million calls, but it took almost double that number.
"Most of that year we weren't actually promoting the service," says Gareth Dent, UFI's head of learner information. "To date we have taken 1.8 million calls."
So far pound;9 million has been spent on the Learndirect helpline, and the Government has pledged another pound;10m to expand it further as the UFI opens this autumn.
The service depends heavily on broadcasting - three-quarters of all callers had seen the Learn-
direct number on television.
Concerted campaigns have also been effective. The BBC Webwise campaign generated 60,000 calls last November from people wanting to learn about the internet.
And Brookie Basics, which used the plot of Brookside to get the basic skills message across, brought 11,000 calls from people with literacy needs.
"It really speaks to people," says Gareth Dent. "And that's why the respect broadcasters have for Learndirect is fundamentally important."
But who is calling? An independent survey found that 48 per cent have GCSE as their highest qualification. "So this isn't just a service for the well-qualified," he says. "It's a service that's reaching a whole range of people in the population. That's something we have had to work hard to get."
UFI's path has not been smooth. Students have suffered delays in trying to access online courses.
And there are fears that Learndirect's computer system might not be able to cope when the system is launched fully this autumn - claims denied by the UFI.
Gareth Dent admits tht one difficulty with the helpline service has been managing the sheer scale of course data.
"We have a database of more than half a million courses - it's a challenge to keep that database up to date. A lot of this information is fantastically volatile. Courses get included in prospectuses and may be cancelled three weeks later."
He says the database could grow five-fold in the next five years as more courses are modularised. And post-16 changes also complicate matters - a major source of information has been training and enterprise councils, which are being abolished.
The UFI is trying to develop new software that will cope with managing this sea of information. Gareth Dent believes the new software will be able to grab course information from college websites and constantly update it.
How does the helpline work? Eight centres take calls from throughout the UK, in Manchester, Leicester, Belfast, Glasgow and four in Wales.
They are not, insists Gareth Dent, call centres. "I always talk about this as a helpline rather than a call centre. We are trying to provide information and advice."
Advisers have no scripts, and no targets to ensure that they take so many calls in a given time.
If anything, too rapid a phone call could mean failure - a potential learner lost.
Three kinds of advisers answer calls. Information advisers deal with the simplest enquiries, like someone wanting to know about French evening classes.
If more help is needed, they can pass the caller onto a learning adviser.
The third tier is a lifelong learning adviser, who offers much more of a counselling role, perhaps for a caller who has problems with basic skills.
Advisers are chosen for their inter-personal skills. Some have advice and guidance backgrounds, others have worked in call centres. They get intensive training towards relevant national vocational qualification levels 2 and 3.
They work in teams of eight, sat at desks facing one another. The atmosphere is informal.
Information adviser Caroline Starling, 26, worked in customer services at Manchester Airport before joining Learndirect.
She says the job has taken her back into learning. She is taking GCSE maths and is starting a degree in September.
"It just opens so many doors," she says. "I had no idea what was actually out there. And it's given me the confidence to give information to people who are in the same situation as me."
The Learndirect free helpine is 0800 100 900. The website address is www.learndirect.co.uk