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close this bookThe Transition of Youth from School to Work: Issues and Policies (IIEP, 2000, 188 p.)
close this folderChapter III. Transition from school to work in Korea: reforms to establish a new pathway structure across education and the labour market by Kioh Jeong
View the documentIntroduction
View the document1. Economic adjustment and youth in Korea
View the document2. Roles of institutions in school-to-work transition
View the document3. From school to work: business and industry involvement
View the document4. Ongoing education reform and implications for youth
View the document5. Conclusions: developing pathways

4. Ongoing education reform and implications for youth

4.1 Education reform for structural adjustment

Structural adjustment in the Korean economy is nothing other than a shift from a large firm-oriented, socio-economic order, to a system to support SMEs. The same is true for the recent education reform initiative in Korea. The Education Reform Commission 1994-1997 (ERC) worked out a series of proposals which was endorsed by the administration at that time. The proposals still serve as the basic framework upon which consecutive policies have been developed. Among them, the Second Education Reform Proposal (ERP 1996) is closely related with labour market issues. The ERP was actually a package proposal combined with the Labour Reform Proposal (LRP 1996) which was released in the second half of the same year by the Labour Reform Commission, a presidential advisory body.

The two proposals aimed at promoting structural adjustment in the economy. The objectives of structural adjustment are to achieve a flexible labour market and enhanced skill bases that can accommodate technological development and support further economic progress. The ERP and LRP were intended as mutually complementary reforms in education and labour. Both the ERP and the LRP targeted education and labour systems. Education and training then were said to contribute little to strengthening the human resource base of the economy. In addition, the reformers criticized the transition and selection practices in education and the labour market being as inequitable as well as inefficient.

The ERP 1996 includes many policy suggestions to shift vocational education from a highly regulated institutional system to an interdependent complex of autonomous initiatives and practices. At first, the ERP 1996 encouraged initiatives from individual institutions in developing interdependencies and the division of roles in the system. Vocational education has been, so far, a large cluster of similarly regulated institutions and schools that have little relation with each other. The ERP proposed that all institutions forge interdependencies, not only among educational and training institutions, but also between industries and educational institutions. Vocational education institutions are expected to establish interrelations with other members in the system so that these joint initiatives by individuals would replace authoritative co-ordination. Under this scheme, contractual relations are developing between vocational high schools and higher education institutions. Participating schools and institutions negotiate curricula, facilities, staff and so on. By the same token, some junior colleges are developing individual networks with industries. Individual initiative is a relatively new concept for the institutions as well as for the education authorities. Being so used to the regulation by highly institutionalized rules, it is a difficult and painstaking endeavour to create a feasible behavioural model.

Secondly, the ERP suggested that the education and training system should promote non-governmental initiatives in assessment and recognition of vocational competence. In 1996, the newly enacted Foundation Act of Qualifications (FAQ) introduced assessment recognition and certification undertaken by private businesses. The FAQ also required the government to promote the development of private sectors in this area. It is still at the initial stages. Substantial progress will be made only to the extent allowed by cumulated experience and knowledge. It is expected that private qualifications would compete with statutory qualifications to create a complete system of individual initiatives and flexibility.

Thirdly, the ERP placed much emphasis on building central and local constituency networks to align co-ordinated efforts for skill development. The Vocational Education and Training Promotion Act (VETPA), passed in 1996, stipulates that the government is responsible for the building of networking bodies at the central and regional level; however, no such bodies exist at the regional level yet. With so little experience of multilateral joint cooperation, this will be a very demanding task. In Korean history, conflicts between the newer imported culture and the old popular culture are well known. The conflicting cultures have continued to exist in parallel. In building a network of social consensus, newer practices and culture used to contribute little, while the older popular tradition of negotiated consensus and association might be of great help. The latter has not been utilized sufficiently because it has existed mostly as a counter-culture against the newer ruling practices. As far as the development of vocational education and training is concerned, social cohesion and trust seem to be indispensable conditions. With the continuing progress of overall democratization in society, various types of participatory movements now prevail in Korea. Development of these participatory movements would help reconcile the ruling practices with the Korean people's older culture of association and, thus, social partnership for vocational education and training would develop.

As summarized above, the ERP 1996 intended to create new ways of steering the system of vocational education and training, which had formerly been organized and governed in a highly centralized and bureaucratic manner. During the long period of educational expansion, school-based vocational education has developed to become a large institutionalized system of more than 1,000 institutions. It is a matter of urgency to update school-based vocational education, as well as the similarly bureaucratized system of the public training and national technical qualification system. The ERP's suggestions were based on the judgement that both vocational education and training should overcome the over-institutionalised establishments to yield a flexible and integrated skill development sector based on private initiatives and competition. Debates still continue in the process of implementing and legitimizing the suggestions of the ERP. At present, further related issues are arising successively and have come under close review to be developed into policies. Among them, structural reform in upper-secondary and university education is of particular importance.

4.2 High school reform and youth

The Korean economy was still rapidly expanding from 1986 to 1995. The Average GDP growth rate during that period neared 9 per cent a year. The period was also characterized by an unprecedented expansion of higher education. Enrolment in junior colleges was at least doubled during the same period. Such expansion in higher education was, curiously, accompanied by increasing enrolment in vocational high schools. It was government policy, a misleading intervention in 1990, which expanded upper-secondary vocational education against natural trends to higher education. Table 15 summarizes what happened. Until 1990, enrolment in vocational high schools decreased rapidly, reflecting changing economic and social demands. The government intervention in 1990 reversed the direction of the curve above the previous peak level within four years. The result of the intervention is now that, hit by the economic contraction, the vocational high school expansion policy based on the manufacture-oriented industrialization framework has just increased the number of youth at risk of unemployment, while greatly damaging public esteem of vocational high schools.

Table 15. Economic growth and educational expansion, 1986-1995












GDP growth rate (%)












% of vocational enrolment/HS** students












% of HE* entrance/HS** graduates












Junior college students (in thousands) (1,000)












Source: Korea Education Development Institute, the Bank of Korea.
* HE: Higher education
** HS: High school

As explained above, vocational high schools, up to 1990, became a failing half of upper-secondary education. This result has undermined the foundation of government policy since 1990 to expand vocational high schools in their current form. The policy was led by a set of premises: first, the manufacturing industry was suffering a labour shortage. Second, university and college graduates were in oversupply. Third, the workforce was over-educated. However, recent unemployment survey data suggested that the government's policy premises were very dubious. In the course of the economic crisis, according to the 1998 employment survey, the over-employment in manufacturing industries had to be released through squeezing out young vocational high-school graduates. They were the group most strongly hit by the employment contraction. Therefore, the fact is rather that vocational high school expansion policy since 1990 has worsened, not alleviated unemployment. Korea should have reduced the size of secondary vocational education to put emphasis on vocational preparation in higher education.

As a result, the context and content of vocational education in the whole education system is a critical policy issue now. After reform began in 1996, not only businesses' recruitment practices, but also the student selection behaviours by the universities and colleges have been diversified. It is time, policy-makers began to think, for the government to introduce the consolidation of the upper-secondary institutions and programmes, which was not touched upon by the ERC four years before. An effective consensus on this issue has not yet been reached, but there are strong and reasonable objections against shifting students into academic programmes or comprehensive schools. The most viable option is to redefine upper-secondary vocational education as a pathway to both higher education and jobs, free from the severe competition of college entrance examinations that have plagued academic high schools. To do this, the development of totally new curricula is an unavoidable precondition. The 7th national curriculum revision, made after the ERC 1996 suggestion, attempted it, but failed to achieve an effective programme.

4.3 Structural adjustment in higher education and youth

The purpose of structural adjustments in higher education is to raise the competitiveness of institutions and programmes as well as individuals attending institutions. Despite the continuously expanding size of higher education, the quality of higher education in Korea has failed to meet industrial demands. Most labour market analysts consider the rapidly increasing unemployment of young university graduates as a result more of their unpreparedness than just from economic contraction. In other words, current youth unemployment is of a structural nature. Therefore, it is well recognized among experts that economic recovery alone will not bring jobs to university graduates.

As mentioned previously, the employability of university and college graduates has become an urgent policy task. In this context, top priority has been placed on improving university and college programmes so that they would meet the industrial demand. The ERPs of 1995 and 1996 deliberately pursued this objective. However, they did not deal with the necessary structural changes and governance problems of higher education institutions. It became clear that institutional autonomy itself was not adequate to bring about curricular changes. Programme improvement is impossible without change in governance and structural factors. Structural adjustment in higher education is absolutely necessary under these conditions.

Under close review is the incentive system sanctioning the institutional behaviours and activities in universities. University accounting, cost-allocation practices and quality assurance measures are examples whereby the incentives system greatly influences the behaviour of individual institutions and programmes, as well as the co-operative behaviour of businesses and industry. The purpose of the possible government action will be encouraging the university-industry as well as inter-university partnership.