Ancient influence on innovation

October 6, 2006

Claire Sanders reports from the Conservative Party conference in Bournemouth

A leading Tory academic is playing a prominent role in a think-tank that is aiming to raise the profile of higher education debate. Jeremy Black has been on the board of Agora for several years.

The group takes its inspiration from the ancient Greeks - in particular from ancient Athens, where the Agora was at the heart of the city. It was a famous meeting place where citizens assembled to conduct political, social and cultural business.

The Agora's modern-day namesake is seeking to be a meeting place of ideas and to have a direct bearing on the great education debates - in particular those in higher education.

Professor Black, professor of history at Exeter University, has long been a member of the Conservative Party. He said: "Although I am a Tory, Agora is not a Tory body. It is a body that includes people from different political parties and from non-governmental organisations. It is designed to offer a variety of views and to represent a variety of opinions."

The think-tank is shortly to produce a book on higher education policy, edited by Professor Black.

"We are planning to seek a higher profile for our work and to engage in blue-skies thinking," he said. "Obviously the issues of funding and fees are vital for higher education, but you have to think beyond that to quality, access and skills shortages. You have to think about the 50 per cent of young people who do not go into higher education as well as the 50 per cent who do."

Professor Black was an undergraduate at Cambridge University before going on to lecture at Durham University. He moved to Exeter in 1996.

Although he has published extensively on British history, his work has an international flavour. His most recent book, Altered States , is a study of the US since the 1960s.

Reflecting on the Conservative Party conference this week, Professor Black said: "The Tories are undergoing a renaissance, with a huge amount of interest in innovative policies. In higher education, having freed themselves from their opposition to tuition fees, the debate is wide open."

As an historian, Professor Black prefers to take a long view of politics.

"I've been told that the best way to influence a government is to influence them while they are in opposition," he said. "That is one of the many things that Agora intends to do."

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