Peers have voted in favour of an opposition amendment to the Higher Education and Research Bill.
The Lords voted 248 to 221 in favour of the amendment, which addresses the function of UK universities.
Such a vote is rare in committee stage. The amendment was debated over several hours in the Lords today - the first of 516 such amendments tabled.
Defeat for the government could mean that universities and science minister Jo Johnson may feel he has to make changes to the proposed legislation.
Rather embarrassing for Jo Johnson - presumably he will have a think about revising some of bill?— John Morgan (@JMorganTHE) January 9, 2017
Baroness Wolf of Dulwich, who is Sir Roy Griffiths professor of public sector management at King's College London and a crossbench peer, supported the amendment and said it was curious that the Bill "has nothing to say about universities", urging that it should "make it clear what we believe a university is".
The amendment in full
UK universities: functions
UK universities are autonomous institutions and must uphold the principles of academic freedom and freedom of speech.
UK universities must ensure that they promote freedom of thought and expression, and freedom from discrimination.
UK universities must provide an extensive range of high quality academic subjects delivered by excellent teaching, supported by scholarship and research, through courses which enhance the ability of students to learn throughout their lives. 2 Higher Education and Research Bill Before Clause 1 - continued
UK universities must make a contribution to society through the pursuit, dissemination, and application of knowledge and expertise locally, nationally and internationally; and through partnerships with business, charitable foundations, and other organisations, including other colleges and universities.
UK universities must be free to act as critics of government and the conscience of society.”
Sue Garden, Liberal Democrat higher education spokesperson in the Lords, said: “It is vital that our universities are retained as autonomous institutions, free to promote freedom of thought and expression and to bring the best and brightest students and academics to the UK.
"With this vote today we have taken a step to ensure the independence of universities, free from the political interference of this and future governments.”
Labour MP Wes Streeting, a former president of the National Union of Students, said the vote signalled the the House of Lords' intentions.
Current NUS vice-president for higher education, Sorana Vieru, went further - speculating that the vote could be the first of many - with dire implications for the legislation.
With over 500 amendments tabled at the Lords committee stage how many vote defeats will it take this govt to withdraw this #HEBill?— Sorana Vieru (@SoranaBanana) January 9, 2017
However, Alex Proudfoot, chief executive of Independent HE - which represents independent education providers, who could well benefit from the reforms in the bill - interpreted the vote differently, foreseeing a safe passage for the government's proposals.
Rocky start in Lords but the many constructive amendments to come show Peers are serious about improving not blocking this essential #HEBill— Alex Proudfoot (@AlexProudfootUK) January 9, 2017
And Lord Lucas, a Conservative peer, is convinced that the amendment will amount to little.
@JMorganTHE This will be ignored from now on and die in due course. For political show only, too technically flawed to survive.— Ralph Lucas (@LordLucasCD) January 9, 2017
Lib Dem peer Lord Goddard offered an observation on the duration of the debate on the amendment.
Higher Education Bill in House of Lords, 500 amendments, just spent 2hours 27 minutes on the first one, now voting on it.— Dave (Lord) Goddard. (@davegoddardsk2) January 9, 2017
There are five further dates scheduled for the committee stage of the bill in the Lords, with the next on 11 January and the last on 25 January.