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CNBC Exclusive Transcript: Richard Levin, President Emeritus, Yale University

Below is the transcript of a CNBC Exclusive interview with Richard Levin, President Emeritus, Yale University. If you choose to use anything, please attribute to CNBC, Martin Soong, and Sri Jegarajah.

Sri Jegarajah (SJ): Let's talk more about this with Richard Levin, President Emeritus at Yale University, also a senior advisor at online learning platform Coursera. He's participating at this year's Singapore Summit and joins us from New Haven, Connecticut. So thank you very much for joining us. My experience as a parent: kids have been remarkably flexible and adapted very well to online learning, given this COVID environment, but it's not been the case, everywhere in the world. Just how has COVID affected the world of education?

Richard Levin (RL): It's a massive impact, as I think you know, about 1.6 billion students who are displaced from their schools. That's from all the way from kindergarten through university. And so the impacts have been huge. I think you're right to say that there's been quite a bit of resiliency that students are learning, although there's a tremendous gap opening up between students who are most capable of taking advantage of online resources and those who can't. You know, both the home environment being too crowded, too inhospitable to learning online has been a problem and so far. So we see many schools reopening in the United States - some of them you might argue prematurely given the incidence of the disease in the surrounding areas - but that experience is imperfect also. So we're struggling. It's not the greatest world we're living in right now. The student experiences reveal.

SJ: Richard, the lessons learned here are like education, health care, as well. It has been woefully under-invested and the upshot, at the end of the day is that more money needs to be deployed in education and in health care.

RL: Well, I think that's true, but I believe money is not is not the big issue right now for education. I think solving the health problem just like everything else. The economy won't get fixed till the health issues are resolved. And education won't get entirely fixed until the health crisis is resolved. So we really need a vaccine widely distributed, we need to accelerate that distribution as much as possible in order to have a life begin to return to normal. That money has helped ease the burden for schools and colleges and universities in the United States. But you know, learning is going online, students are getting educated, and the money is flowing enough to keep the schools alive. So I don't think that's the biggest issue at the moment. The biggest issue is solving the health crisis.

Martin Soong (MS): Yeah, Rich, this is Martin. Let me quickly jump in with a question here. You know, the efficacy of what you're into, Coursera's into, online learning is only beneficial if kids have access, can get online for parts of the world. And there's still a huge swathe here, which fall on the wrong side of the digital divide. What happens then? Do they just fall out of school? I mean, do they just drop out and not go back in it? And what do you do about that?

RL: We know, platforms like Coursera are fully accessible on mobile phones and the penetration of mobile phones in developing countries is getting to be pretty extensive. So there's a significant remaining problem, particularly in Africa, about access. But things are improving considerably. And the penetration of online platforms throughout the world is quite impressive. One of the things we've learned in this period where universities were forced to go online is that all of the lessons that platforms like Coursera have learned over the last eight years or so, have been incredibly useful for existing efforts by the current efforts by universities. We're seeing a tremendous increase in in utilization of online platforms over the past six months.

SJ: Richard, what do you consider the story from the university point of view and we know that this new guidance from Ice is proving to be quite a big challenge for foreign students. If I could get a visa I would definitely go, so says one quote in the Wall Street Journal. Is the US turning away the best minds potentially through its immigration policy?

RL: Absolutely, I think we're making a big mistake in restricting immigration of students who are admitted to our schools. They should be allowed to come even if instruction is fully online, and be in university communities where they can benefit from the learning from their colleagues and from the general environment of devotion to learning. America, you know, is the nation of immigrants. Our economic strength and our robustness as a democracy depends on a continuing flow of immigrants and we especially benefit from high-skilled, highly-talented immigrants of the sort that attend US universities.

SJ: Richard, I'm always telling my kids that you never stop learning and especially in this digital age when upskilling is such a big story. And it seems that the biggest challenge to job security is coming from AI, from automation. Do you believe that enough is being done from a policy point of view to transition the workforce, whether it's through upscaling etc., to the digital economy?

RL: Nowhere near enough. That is to say there's very little policy response in the US in terms of, you know, training people in throughout their careers in skills. The private market is stepping in, and a number of philanthropies are helping to give assistance to retraining, but by and large, the federal government has been pretty quiet. Now we have had, we've seen some good work by state governments in developing workforce training programs. And in fact, Coursera offered its entire learning platform for free to state governments for their use in workforce development. And we've seen considerable uptake on that, but it just takes time. And it does take resources and there are many government policies that should be changed to facilitate and ease the efforts at training people who are out of work and training people who are trying to transition from low-skill, low-income jobs, to higher-skill, higher-income jobs. I mean, there's excellent material for all kinds of professions and occupations that aren't getting increasingly high-quality and we could do much, much better.

MS: All right, and Rich, excellent talking to you as well, appreciate the time. Keep safe and we'll do it again very soon, I hope. Rich Levin - 20 years the President of Yale joining us live.


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