It will have been a memorable week for A-Level students whose results on Thursday morning earned them a place at the university of their choice. For their parents, this was the light at the end of a long tunnel of nagging and possibly bribing them to get their revision done.
For the universities, though, the report card was mixed. Numbers are down and Labour has threatened them with an overhaul of the admissions system. But nowhere does the position seem more urgent than at Goldsmiths, a constituent college of the University of London in the borough of Lewisham, south of the Thames.
It was from here that sprang the week’s most ill-advised and self-righteous edict. It would, it said, attempt to save the planet by banning the sale of beef burgers on its campus.
Even if you accept that a small handful of buildings sandwiched between a bus stop and a branch of Costa Coffee constitutes a “campus”, its rationale is deeply flawed.
Its timing is questionable, for a start. Did it deliberately announce its policy in the very week that competition for students is at its most intense and publicity most valuable? One would like to think that the University of London was above that sort of thing, but the headline on Goldsmiths’ website suggested otherwise. “Places available in clearing”, it screamed, in big, pink letters.
The real problem, though, is of reducing a global problem to the level of playground science, and seeking to find a scapegoat for it.
The university’s argument was that it had a “huge carbon footprint” which it was its duty to reduce. The obvious way to do this would be by getting the heck out of Lewisham and relocating to somewhere greener, but it’s probably harder still to attract students to the outskirts of Milton Keynes.
So instead, it will place a 10p levy on plastic bottles and ban the sale of beef products on its premises. There was a noticeable absence of explanation for this last point, so we must surmise that what Goldsmiths had in mind was the level of methane in the atmosphere.
Methane is what cows and universities emit from a certain part of their anatomy when they are full of wind. It is a destructive greenhouse gas, but it is a gross over-simplification to conclude that less beef automatically means less pollution. If a Goldsmiths student proposed something as shallow in a dissertation, they could expect to see their 2:1 go flying out of the window in a cloud of hot air.
A report from another university, Cornell in the United States, blew an embarrassingly large hole in Goldsmiths’ exposition. The rapid rise in methane levels, it concluded, could be ascribed not to cows, nor tropical wetlands, rice fields or other biological emitters, but to human activity in general and one in particular.
It was fracking – the process of drilling into the earth to release shale gas – that was most responsible for increasing methane emissions around the world, Cornell said.
This is where a responsible university could bring its influence to bear in Britain. If there is evidence that fracking rigs of the sort proposed in the North York Moors would damage the atmosphere more than all the cows in the Dales, it would be helpful to know now, rather than later.
Besides, as the National Farmers’ Union pointed out, beef production here is among the most efficient in the world. Cows graze on grass, and their greenhouse gas footprint is two-and-a-half times smaller than the global average. I’m glad I wasn’t the one who had to measure it.
The NFU has spent years encouraging universities to use beef sourced from their own area. Not only does it benefit local farmers, but it reduces the carbon footprint by cutting down its journey from farm to fork. This is the sensible way to sustain agriculture and the planet.
This weekend, thousands of visitors will descend on Castle Howard, north of York, for a crash course on the countryside more valuable than any of the cod science coming out of south London. The Countryfile Live event, staged for the first time in the North of England, will bring together food producers and consumers in a celebration of farming. I hope anyone whose A-level results have led them to Goldsmiths will go along – it won’t take them long to learn more about the subject than any of their new lecturers.