Higher Education and Research Bill - Committee (1st Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:45 pm on 9th January 2017.

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Photo of Lord Sutherland of Houndwood Lord Sutherland of Houndwood Crossbench 4:45 pm, 9th January 2017

My Lords, many issues have come up in the debate on which I agree with the speaker, but the difficulty is that not all the speakers agree with each other, which results in a bit of a patchwork. However, on one or two points, not least the point about definitions, this illustrates something. The risk with a definition is that you can get the detail wrong and thus invalidate much of what you want to do, and I have much sympathy with the points made by those sitting on the Benches to my left.

That said, I turn to someone whose works I read at university but subsequently lost, the philosopher Wittgenstein, who wrote about definitions. He was not very keen on them because of the risk that you think have got them right when you have not. He suggested instead—it is a bit difficult if you are legislating, but it has a place here—that rather than legislate through definition we should assemble examples as a reminder of the richness of what we are talking about. Earlier in the debate, we heard an excellent example of what universities are about. Two Members of the House who are professors at King’s College London publicly disagreed with each other. That is marvellous; that is what universities should be doing. There should be room for that. The risk with a definition is that it could miss out the University of the Highlands and Islands, the Open University or all sorts of other examples. The Imperial College of Science and Technology was under very close scrutiny when the University of London was asked to set it up, but where would we be today without it? Therefore, I simply sound a cautionary note about the risk of overlegislating through definition.