ASER 2017, an annual survey of the status of education, reveals that 64% of 14–18-year-olds have never used the internet. It is a long road to a truly inclusive Digital India

Seventy-three percent of youth aged 14–18 in rural India had used a mobile phone in the last week, the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2017, released in January 2018, reveals. Despite the big push towards a Digital India, however, 59% of them had never worked on a computer, and 64% had never used the internet.

The gender difference is especially glaring. While only 12% of boys had never used a mobile phone, 22% of girls had never used one. While 49% of boys had never used the internet, almost 76% of girls had never gone online.

While 85% had watched television in the last week, 58% had read a newspaper, and 46% had listened to the radio. Gender differences in access to traditional media, however, were lower than the differences in access to the digital world.

Almost 75% of youth in this age-group have their own bank accounts. In financial participation, girls outdid boys, with 76.4% of girls having their own bank accounts compared to 71.9% of boys. Fifty-one percent have deposited or withdrawn money from the bank, 16% have used an ATM or debit card, but only 5% have ever made any transaction using a payment app or mobile banking.

ASER is an annual household-based survey conducted by Pratham, which  provides estimates of children’s enrolment in school and learning outcomes for rural districts in each Indian state. While the preceding surveys have focussed on children in the 5–16 age-group, ASER 2017, “Beyond Basics”, focuses on the  older,  14–18 age-group. The survey sampled 60 villages in each of 26 rural districts, covering 28,323 young Indians over 24 states.

Since 2010, the Right to Education (RTE) Act has made elementary education a fundamental right for children in the 6–14 age-group. The 14-year-olds in the 2017 ASER survey are among the first to have benefited from RTE’s no-detention and free and compulsory education provisions. RTE certainly seems to have helped ensure that children stay within the formal educational set-up. The data show that at age 15, 92.1% of the children surveyed continue to be in school/college. But the transition rates to higher secondary schools remain low: 14% of youth in the 14–18 age-group are not currently enrolled in school or college. This number increases to 30.2% by age 18. The survey also points to the gender gap in enrollment with increase in age, with close to 32% of girls out of the education system by age 18, compared to 28% of boys. The reasons for discontinuing studies varied. Around 25% of the youth who dropped out at 15 years said they did so due to financial reasons. A large number of students (34% of boys and 19% of girls) said they dropped out due to lack of interest, pointing to deficiencies in the curriculum and teaching infrastructure. Further, 42% of youth reported that they were also working, while only 5% are taking vocational training. However, after accounting for work and enrolment in vocational courses, over one-third of the youth who have dropped out of education are not engaged in any kind of activity, nearly 75% of them being girls.

The 2017 survey attempts to determine “the preparedness of youth in rural India with respect to their ability to lead productive lives as adults”. Therefore, it   goes beyond the basics of foundational reading and arithmetic and focuses on more composite indicators such as Activity (what the youth are engaged in), Ability (basic reading and arithmetic skills and their application), Awareness (of media and digital and financial instruments) and Aspirations (educational and career goals) of youth in this age-group.

Previous ASER reports have consistently pointed to the poor learning outcomes of students in basic reading and arithmetic. Not surprisingly, the learning deficits seen in the elementary schools in previous years carry forward in the later years as well. Close to 25% of the 14–18-year-olds  could not read basic texts fluently in their own language, while only 43% were able to complete basic division problems. The situation was worse when it came to the application of these foundational skills in day-to-day life. For instance, only 54% could read, understand and answer questions based on the written instructions on an ORS packet. Only 76% could count money correctly and 60% could tell the time accurately. Only 64% knew what the capital of India was, and only 42% could point to the state they lived in on a map. While those who had completed at least 8 years of schooling fared marginally better, not all who had done so could complete the tasks. The gender gap in this respect was also notable.

ASER 2017 highlights the glaring gaps in education, particularly in rural areas,  and its effects on the aspirations and future of Indian youth, raising uncomfortable questions that policymakers and civil society will have to tackle head-on., February 2018