Students first enter vocational education and training (VET) in upper secondary school. After they graduate from upper secondary VET, they have three options: 1) they can go directly to work; 2) they can apply to two- to three-year vocational programs at junior colleges or polytechnic colleges; or 3) they can apply to university. Junior colleges and polytechnic colleges offer similar programs, but junior colleges are private and polytechnic colleges are public so there is a difference in the tuition. Junior colleges also offer bachelor degree programs. Secondary school students must take the CSAT and apply for admission to any post-secondary option.
Enrollment in vocational education and training (VET) has declined from approximately half of upper secondary students in the 1970s and 1980s to approximately 20 percent today. This is likely due to the expansion of higher education. Since 2010, South Korea has sought to both boost student interest in VET and better align VET programs and labor market needs with a series of reforms to the structure of the system.
First, South Korea increased the emphasis on career exploration in the primary and lower secondary curriculum, intended to prepare student for the choice of VET in upper secondary school. Second, they developed National Competency Standards (NCS) in 16 broad industry areas and are now developing a National Qualifications Framework for all secondary and post-secondary vocational programs. And third, they restructured upper secondary vocational schools to focus on specific industries and foster greater collaboration with industry partners. They also introduced Meister secondary schools, which are modelled on the Germany Dual System. Meister schools have competitive entrance requirements, waive tuition fees for students, and guarantee employment to their graduates. Meister schools focus on specific industries, such as banking, shipbuilding or semiconductor manufacturing and develop their own curriculum with industry partners. As of 2015, there were about 40 of these schools and the government is continuing to expand them as they have proved a popular option for students. Another effort to expand options in vocational education is a pilot “work and study” program within the specialized vocational schools, which was expanded to 60 schools in 2015.
About 35 percent of vocational education students continue to post-secondary education, many of whom go to the junior college or polytechnic college system. South Korea is concerned about an oversupply of higher education graduates, however, and is actively encouraging vocational education graduates to join the workforce rather than proceeding directly to further education. One strategy has been to allow students to bypass taking the CSAT college entry exam when applying to some colleges and universities from the workforce.
South Korea is continuing to upgrade its VET system, with plans to increase the percent of students entering the system. The Ministry’s 2016 Major Policies and Plans document includes a goal of increasing the percent of students in vocational schools to 29 percent by 2022.
In addition to continuing to expand new models for vocational schools, South Korea is also focused on lowering the cost to companies of apprenticeships and on building coordination between specialized vocational upper secondary schools and junior colleges so that students have clear pathways to continue their training within specific industry areas. South Korea is also working to align the curricula in all specialized vocational upper secondary schools and Meister schools to the National Competency Standards.
There are also continuing efforts to increase the employment rates of vocational education students and better accommodate students with work experience in higher education through specialized course offerings. The number of students choosing to gain work experience before continuing to further education almost doubled from 2013 to 2016.