International Reads: Evaluating Postsecondary Vocational Education and Training Programs – How do Denmark and South Korea Measure Up?

While Denmark has historically had a high performing vocational education and training (VET) system at the high school level, a new OECD report reveals that the country is also actively searching for ways to expand VET opportunities for post-secondary students.  Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, South Korea still faces a number of challenges in building a post-secondary system that actively prepares young people and adults for today’s technical and professional labor market, according to the OECD.

The OECD’s A Skills Beyond School Review series is currently also being conducted in Austria, Egypt, Germany, Israel, the Netherlands, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, England and the United States with case studies of Florida, Maryland, and Washington state.  Each review follows a standard methodology with the selected country preparing a background report and the OECD team making two visits to the country to discuss important issues with a number of stakeholders.  In addition to this work, the OECD is preparing a range of analytical studies on issues such as access and career guidance and counseling.  The complete body of work will conclude with a comparative report offering key policy messages for all OECD countries expected to be issued at the end of 2012.

In Denmark, postsecondary VET education takes the form of two different programs ⎯ academy profession (AP) degree programs and professional bachelor degree programs.  AP programs are short-cycle higher education programs that typically take about two-years to complete.  Admission is based on qualifications comparable to a Danish high school leaving certificate.  The AP program provides students with analytical and professional skills relevant for employment in businesses or industries.  The program also qualifies graduates for further studies within the same field at the university level.  Along with class work, a minimum three-month work placement and the submission of a project paper are required for graduation.  Most programs are offered at academies of professional higher education, which are independent organizations, separate from universities.  However current legislation outlines that prior to 2015, each academy should decide if they want to remain independent, in which case they will then have to transfer their bachelor programs to a higher education institution or merge with a higher education institution.  As of 2009, almost 19,000 students were registered in AP programs, which is a substantial increase from 2000 when nearly 13,000 students were enrolled.

Professional bachelor programs in Denmark require three to four and half years of study and are equivalent to a university bachelor degree with a stronger focus on professional practice.  The majority of the program takes place at a higher education institution and prepares students with theoretical knowledge and an understanding of how to apply theory to professional practice.  Along with all required coursework, a minimum six-month work placement and the submission of a project paper are required for graduation.  Admission to these programs is based on student performance on high school leaving examinations and other factors such as minimum grades.

A Skills Beyond School Review of Denmark identifies a number of strengths for this country’s postsecondary VET system including the mandatory, well-structured workplace training that outlines clear learning goals.  They also note Denmark’s effective policies to incentivize institutions to help students stay in school through graduation such as the school funding system, which funds institutions according to program completion numbers.  Additional laws are in place to encourage students to stay in school, for example, education institutions are required to refer students that wish to dropout to regional guidance centers and municipalities are legally required to make contact with and offer guidance to young people that are unemployed and not enrolled in school at least twice a year up until age 19.  Another impressive element of Denmark’s VET system is a parallel adult education system.  Over 40 percent of adults participate in formal and/or non-formal education each year and can expect to receive 1,794 hours of instruction during their working life, which is one of the highest levels across the OECD.  Lastly the OECD points out that both the employers and the employees are very engaged in planning, designing and steering the VET system.

In South Korea, postsecondary VET accounts for 30 percent of higher education enrollment and is provided by both junior colleges and polytechnics.  The junior colleges enroll over 50 times more students than polytechnics.  However their admission processes are not very selective and some institutions can struggle to fill their rosters.  Ninety-five percent of junior colleges are private, and government funding accounts for less than 10 percent of total junior college income.  Completion of these programs typically takes two years although three-year and four-year degrees are offered in a number of fields such as engineering.  While the difference in wages between junior college and high school graduates has been decreasing over the past 30 years, there is still a benefit in terms of employment.  The polytechnic schools, on the other hand, are public and access is more selective.  These schools typically offer one- and two-year degrees in technical fields such as electronics, mechanical engineering or telecommunications.  In addition, polytechnics offer shorter programs for employed and unemployed individuals as well as retired military serviceman.  A strength of South Korea’s VET system is the ease with which students can apply credits from VET programs toward a university degree.  Currently about half of junior college graduates continue in the university program.  This can present challenges as the vocational programs and university programs do not align their programs of study, so many junior college graduates are unprepared for the university-level work.

A Skills Beyond School Review of Korea finds a skills mismatch between VET options and labor market needs.  The reviewers make a number of suggestions on this front: convene a national body of key stakeholder groups, including businesses, to lead the development and regular updating of standards and qualifications based on the skill demands in the South Korean economy and make recommendations to ensure students are trained in these important areas.  The reviewers also suggest making transparent standards for VET programs through the development of common, national standards and assessments.  Another recommendation is to improve quality assurance in junior colleges by basing funding allocations and accreditation status on the quality of the training provided.  Lastly, the reviewers suggest that South Korea work to improve career information available to prospective students and that junior colleges make workplace training mandatory.  It is important to note that most of the OECD’s recommendations are focused on the junior colleges, which unlike the polytechnics do not have a strong link to workforce priorities.  The point of building a national framework for VET is crucial so all programs meet the same standards and the value of the each qualification or degree is clear to prospective employers as well as students.

In both of these country reports, workplace training is stressed as a key part of students’ vocational education experiences; not only does it benefit students but it can also serve to substantially enhance relationships between VET providers and employers.  Other key elements of high-performing systems seem to be the high status of these programs and the flexibility for VET students to apply what they have learned and move on to university qualifications.  The quality of the teaching staff is also not to be overlooked.  High quality vocational education and training requires instructors with solid pedagogical skills as well as expertise in the field they are teaching.  This means teachers must have professional development opportunities available within the system.

The Credibility and Value of International Education and Training Qualifications

The European Centre for the Development of Vocational Training (CEDEFOP), the European Union’s reference centre for vocational education and training, released a new report on International Qualifications in June 2012.  The report looks at a variety of education and training qualifications, diplomas, certificates and licenses that are awarded outside the jurisdiction of any one country.  The authors try to develop a typology for these qualifications and analyze their credibility and value in the labor market.  The qualifications they consider are as diverse as: a certificate for seafarers, the Association of Montessori International primary certificate, Cisco certifications and airplane pilot licenses.  Their typology includes five categories for describing each: purpose (what the qualification is for); type (how complete and how durable the qualification is); coverage (where the qualification can be used); competent body (who awards the qualification); and currency value (what the qualification can be exchanged into).  They look at the case of Welding in more detail where cooperation among different bodies has yielded defacto international standards, driven by the need for safety and quality in this occupation.  The report suggests that while national qualifications are becoming easier to evaluate for quality because of the development of national qualifications frameworks, international qualifications are becoming harder to value because of the lack of any international organizing structure and the new need to align them with national frameworks.  The authors believe that international qualifications will only maintain relevance with the transparency that comes from an overall system for cataloguing and monitoring the quality of these qualifications.

Many countries, of course, have fully elaborated systems of occupational skills standards.  Some have systems less robust and some, like the United States, still have no national occupational skill standards framework.  Those that do have been working to find ways to develop cross walks among their standards systems to make it possible for people certified in one system to have their skills recognized in others.  As the global economy continues to globalize, the pressures to rationalize these systems will increase.   As the pace of technological change increases and work organization changes as a consequence, it will be more and more challenging to make sure that skill standards systems lead and do not follow these changes.

How the Netherlands Successfully Support Child Well-Being 

In July 2012, Every Child Counts published The Netherlands Study: Learning from the Netherlands to improve outcomes for New Zealand’s children.  Every Child Counts is a collaboration of New Zealand-based nonprofits as well as UNICEF and Save the Children that was organized in 2004 as a watchdog for children’s advocacy in the country.  Rowe Davies Research, a New Zealand firm, prepared the report.

The authors were asked to analyze the policies in the Netherlands that contribute to its high levels of child well-being at relatively lower costs than many other OECD nations that achieve similarly high levels of child well-being.  The report notes that the programs in the Netherlands for children are more systemic and widespread than in New Zealand and that New Zealand is currently spending half of what the Netherlands spends on children overall, according to OECD numbers.

The report attributes the Netherlands success to nation-wide programs of support for parents and young children, including a targeted health service for all children from 0-19 delivered by local health centers that ensures preventative care and health education for all youth and also has a significant on-line support aspect; a broad system of free pre- and post-natal care for mothers that includes assistance with basic household chores that relate to the health of the mother and baby; a dramatic increase in childcare since the 2005 Dutch Childcare Act with parents, government and employers splitting the costs overall and subsidies available for lower-income parents; generous housing support for low-income parents with one in three Dutch citizens receiving some housing support; a means-tested childcare allowance and a mandatory 16-week paid parental leave policy; and a youth care agency in each locality to coordinate all youth services and provide a single point of contact.

Based on the lessons from the Netherlands, the report recommends that New Zealand consider the following investments:

  • Expand parent support and education programs;
  • Expand child care services;
  • Develop services to deal with post-natal depression;
  • Expand care before and afterschool for children whose parents work;
  • Increase parental leave to 18 weeks and widen the eligibility to parents with less stable work histories; and
  •   Increase the availability and quality of state funded housing for low-income parents, and add programming to housing to increase social mobility.

They also suggest some longer-term strategies:

  • Adapting child digital files so that they can be used to store health information;
  • Adopting national indicators of child wellbeing and monitoring new policies by how well they move the country towards these indicators; and
  • Continuing dialogue with the Netherlands, as the two countries share many characteristics and are likely to learn from one another.

The report cautions that, in the face of global economic woes, the Netherlands is considering austerity measures that threaten to dismantle some elements of the system just described.  It also points to some of the ways that the Netherlands family and child services could be improved that echo issues in many other countries and systems: increasing professional development for family and child workers, encouraging more collaboration among agencies, better integrating funding streams.  The challenge will be to see how the Netherlands continues to develop and prioritizes investments in children in more difficult economic times.