Status of Education Report 2023 reveals big digital divide and gender bias in India

Policies should aim at comprehensive digital inclusion initiatives, ensuring improved access to computers and gender-neutral digital literacy programmes. Integrating technology into formal education can further enhance digital skills among the youth, preparing them for an increasingly technology-driven world.

By Moumita Barman

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The ASER (Annual Status of Education Report) 2023 ‘Beyond Basics’ survey aimed to understand the educational and skill levels of youth aged 14-18 across 28 districts in 26 states, reaching 34,745 individuals in India. Data was collected on their current activities, basic and applied skills, access to digital devices, digital skills, and future aspirations. The report was released on 17 January 2024 and was followed by a panel discussion.

In terms of educational enrollment and stream distribution, the survey revealed that 86.8% of 14-18-year-olds were enrolled in educational institutions, with a slight gender gap. Older youth were more likely to be unenrolled, with 3.9% of 14-year-olds and 32.6% of 18-year-olds not enrolled. Most were enrolled in the Arts/Humanities stream (55.7%), followed by STEM (31.7%) and Commerce (9.4%). Notably, only 5.6% of surveyed youth were taking vocational training courses, with a higher percentage at the college level (16.2%).

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With regard to youth activities and work, males (40.3%) were more likely than females (28%) to engage in work beyond household activities for at least 15 days in the preceding month. Most youth involved in work were contributing to family farms.

The survey also assessed basic reading and arithmetic skills, revealing that about 25% of youth could not read a Standard II level text fluently in their regional language. Additionally, over half struggled with division problems. Females outperformed males in reading, while males performed better in arithmetic and English reading.

With respect to everyday calculations, nearly 85% of surveyed youth could measure length as per the tests taken up by the ASER. Males outperformed females across all everyday calculations, with proficiency linked to basic arithmetic skills.

As for financial calculations of the youth capable of subtraction, over 60% could manage a budget, 37% could apply a discount, and only about 10% could calculate loan repayments. Males outperformed females across all financial calculation tasks.

Youth who could read at least a Standard I level text were tested on their ability to understand written instructions. Results showed that foundational skills positively impacted performance, but there was room for improvement, especially among females.

Furthermore, the survey explored digital access, communication, online safety, education, learning, and services. Close to 90% of youth had smartphones, but only 9% had computers. Males were more likely to own smartphones and computers. Half of males had an email ID compared to 30% of females. Almost all youth used social media, but only about half were familiar with online safety settings.

And finally with regard to digital tasks, slightly more than two-thirds of youth could perform digital tasks such as setting an alarm, browsing for information, and using Google Maps. Males outperformed females, and performance improved with education level and basic reading proficiency.

The ASER 2023 survey identified several challenges that need thoughtful interventions to ensure the holistic development of youth aged 14-18 in India. One prominent challenge is the existing educational disparities, where despite an overall high enrollment rate, gender and age-related gaps persist. The focus should be on implementing targeted educational interventions, particularly for older youth and to address gender imbalances in enrollment. As mentioned in the panel discussion, interventions should also emphasise on utilising Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics (STEAM Education) as entry points to steer student inquiry, foster meaningful dialogue, and encourage critical thinking. Flexible learning pathways and support programmes can also help accommodate diverse learning needs, ensuring a more inclusive educational landscape.

Another pressing issue highlighted by the survey is the limited uptake of vocational training among the surveyed youth. To bridge this gap, policies should be directed towards the development and promotion of vocational training programmes which was also highlighted during the discussion. Collaborations with industry stakeholders are essential to align these programmes with market demands, enhancing the employability of the youth and diversifying their skill sets.

Foundational skill gaps, including difficulties in basic reading and arithmetic, pose significant hurdles for the future prospects of these young individuals. Interventions should emphasise on strengthening foundational skills early in the education system. Remedial programmes can also provide crucial support to students who lag behind, fostering a more robust educational foundation.

The survey also highlighted a pronounced digital divide, despite widespread smartphone ownership. Policies should aim at comprehensive digital inclusion initiatives, ensuring improved access to computers and gender-neutral digital literacy programmes. Integrating technology into formal education can further enhance digital skills among the youth, preparing them for an increasingly technology-driven world.

Moreover, the limited financial literacy observed among the surveyed youth suggests a need for targeted measures. Introducing financial literacy programmes in schools and communities can equip youth with essential financial management skills, empowering them to make informed economic decisions.

In addressing these challenges, every stakeholder involved should strive for a connected and comprehensive approach. By weaving together targeted interventions in education, vocational training, gender inclusivity, digital literacy, and financial education, India can create a more conducive environment for the holistic development of its youth, unleashing their full potential and contributing to the nation’s progress.

Moumita Barman is a Research Associate at the Centre for Development Policy and Practice (CDPP). She has a master’s degree in Public Policy and Governance from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Hyderabad. She has a bachelor’s in political science from Loreto College, University of Calcutta. Her research interests lie in Gender, Social Conflict, Caste and Religion in India, and Education.

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