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S Korea's vocational education needs to tackle its shortcomings

Jan 05. 2014
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SOUTH KOREANS have placed a strong emphasis on education, which is one reason why their country has advanced so quickly in the last half a century.
However, the country’s education system still faces a number of problems. Like Thailand, for example, South Korea has failed to attract an adequate number of students to vocational education. 
As a result, South Korea faces skilled labour shortages in some fields and hidden unemployment in others, according to 2012 employment trend research, conducted by Statistics Korea. The research also reveals that college graduates’ earnings are lower than those of high-school graduates. Yet, South Korean parents continue to encourage their children to enter colleges and universities. They have even disregarded the fact that the unemployment rate for college graduates is higher than that of high-school graduates. 
McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) said that South Korea should urgently address these issues before they undermine the country’s vocational education system. It has recommended a series of initiatives that South Korea can implement to reduce the demand for college education. Among them is the need to manage vocational training and to assist students in choosing a career path in which they can be assured of job opportunities. Unless parents are made aware that there are other paths to good-paying jobs, they will continue to push their children towards academic education courses at colleges and universities, MGI said. 
To succeed in this mission, South Korea will need to develop vocational-education programmes in collaboration with leading firms to ensure graduates are equipped with a set of skills that truly reflect the needs of local industry employers, MGI added. 
Although South Korea has yet to fully respond to the MGI recommendations, it has already taken some interesting initiatives. 
For example, it has introduced the German Vocational Education System to some pilot schools under the so-called Meister (Master in English) high-school programme, which combines academic content with apprenticeships. It is a part of a new dual-track system for secondary and post-secondary education in South Korea. 
This initiative looks set to benefit the corporate sector by supplying low-cost, entry-level workers with specific “job-ready” skills. At the same time, companies are expected to support graduates of the Meister Programme, if they later choose to pursue advanced degrees.
MGI suggests that “Industry should become more involved in education, developing curricula that reflect industry needs and contributing resources, such as adjunct instructors. Other measures might include offering special incentives for companies to hire Meister graduates and adjusting corporate policies to ensure that Meister graduates have good opportunities for pay raises and career advancement. Part of the Meister curriculum should include training on how to start a business.”
Thailand also badly needs to boost the quality of its vocational education and to attract more students to vocational programmes. I understand that Thai authorities are currently working on a number of projects to address this need. It can only be hoped that the projects will be launched soon and backed with good research. 
Indeed, policymakers will need to do something better than simply implementing a plan to lower the number of available seats at senior-secondary schools, thus forcing students into vocational programmes. If students do not wish to study in the field, the country cannot place much hope in the quality of its vocational graduates.
The best way, I believe, is the way MGI has suggested. 
Let all relevant parties in Thailand join together to develop quality vocational programmes via which students can acquire jobs relevant to their skills. Companies can also assist in the training of students or their future employees. In addition, the relevant educational authorities must create a greater awareness of vocational education and the benefits it has over some academic learning. For instance, it should be made clear that even without a university degree, it is still possible to find a secure job with a good salary. 
If we can do that, I am sure Thailand’s various industries will be able to find more vocational graduates to fulfil their requirements, enabling them to prosper further. 
Learning scientist
Computer Engineering Department
King Mongkut’s University of Technology Thonburi

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