Wednesday brought with it #demo2012 – the latest in a long line of hashtag adorned mass student demonstrations organised by the National Union of Students. Around 10,000 students marched through the streets of London unified in protest against mass youth unemployment and the coalition government’s educational reform. Amongst the many witty pop culture based placards (my favourite on Wednesday: “and are these cuts gettin’ beaten?” alongside a photo of Azaelia Banks) that students carry on these demos, there is a steady stream of reference to the Harry Potter books – unsurprisingly so, given that many of the current cohort of undergraduates in the country grew up reading J.K. Rowling’s series. As well as pleas to Dumbledore to come and sort out the Higher Education funding system, and reflections of the national outpouring of grief at Dobby’s demise; Hogwarts, Harry Potter’s school and the base of much of the story, is held up as a utopian ideal. A school at which, none of ‘this shit’ – which we can safely assume refers to the changes to HE following the Browne Review, including the tripling of UG tuition fees, cuts to arts and humanities funding and wider institutional reforms – would be happening. “Shoulda gone to Hogwarts”, as the placard says…
But should you have, or could you have? Formed in the 9th century somewhere in the wilds of Scotland, Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry is a selective mixed sex school for 11-18 year olds. The 40 students in Harry’s year, out of around half a million young people their age, points to the extreme selectiveness of Hogwarts admissions policy. Admission is decided by genetic birthright – those with the dominant magic gene are scribed by magic quill into an enrolment book at birth, with acceptance confirmed by owl post at the age of 11.
Due to interbreeding between Muggles (those without the magic gene) and Pure-Bloods (those from wizarding families with dominant magic genes), some with magical skills are born to Muggle parents -Hermione Granger for example – and others, like Potter himself, are Half-Bloods, born to mixed parentage. Further, we have Squibs, Pure-Blood wizards who carry the magic gene as a recessive trait. There are very few Pure-Bloods left, as Sirius Black points out in The Order of the Phoenix, yet Muggle-born wizards are seen as pollutions of the line, and Muggles and Squibs are frequently crossed off of family trees to maintain an illusion of purity.
The existence of a dominant magic gene is compulsory to gain a place at Hogwarts, “You are either magic or you’re not”, claims Dumbledore. Squibs, as members of the wizarding community, retain a lower class status within the wizarding world, and are refused entry into post-11 education, instead undertaking manual low graded work at the school. The Ministry of Magic – the main governing body of the British wizarding world and equivalent to the UK government – does not keep a record of squib births, a sign of the distain they are held in, and instead suggests for them to be removed from their families and integrated within the Muggle world.
In The Chamber of Secrets, Filch – a squib who works at Hogwarts – is undertaking a rudimentary magic course, Kwikspell, which suggests that with the right tuition, whilst ability is to some extent inate, magic can be learnt. With such a regressive entrance policy, Hogwarts has no way in which to measure taught magical potential within Muggles and Squibs. A more inclusive educational experience would look to admitting students on future potential rather than existing ability, and perhaps look towards a contextual admissions policy which provides specialist tuition to Squibs pre-entry in order to test for latent abilities. Until then, Hogwarts is far behind the UK Muggle Educational system in terms of its widening access to wizardry measures.
There is some confusion further as to whether Hogwarts is in fact a fee paying school. Still, regardless of whether schooling is free at the point of access, hidden course costs quickly mount up. In students’ acceptance letters, they are required to start school with three sets of plain work robes (black), one plain pointed hat (black) for day wear, a pair of protective gloves (dragon hide or similar), a winter cloak (black, with silver fastenings), 8 core textbooks, a wand, a cauldron (pewter, standard size 2), a set glass or crystal phials, a telescope and a set of brass scales. A recent blog from the Economics Society at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania available here found the cost of sending your child to Hogwarts requires families to break the (Gringotts) bank. Between tuition, books and academic supplies, the total cost of first year supplies hits a cool £26,816. If we factor in boarding fees, this rises to over £50,000. This refers to the bare minimum as required by Hogwarts, and does not include pets (students may also bring, if they desire, an owl, a cat or a toad), Quidditch robes, broomsticks or the many other hidden costs that students face.
Hogwarts does, to some extent, attempt to mitigate the financial barriers to wizardry access, through a fund established to assist with books and uniform. Yet finance is still a perceived barrier that the school does little to address in terms of pre-entry education – In The Half Blood Prince, Tom Riddle says he can’t afford to go, and is unaware of financial support available. How many other talented wizards have turned down a place at Hogwarts due to a fear of debt?
Students’ Unions and the National Union of Students play a key role within the muggle educational system in terms of voicing students’ concerns and providing autonomous spaces in which students can organise and campaign to seek change within the system. Hogwarts, alas, seems to lack any form of student representational body, and the draconian rules system, where tutors can meter out any punishment they see fit with no space to appeal such action, is yet another example of how Hogwarts would benefit from organised student action. The provision of information advice and guidance, advancing students’ rights, access to education and hidden course costs are all key areas of work within SUs and the NUS, and while there are many reasons to be critical of current education policy and opportunity, some brilliant work is being carried out by student organisations attempting to redress the imbalances of our system. Without such bodies, I’m certain that this would indeed be happening at Hogwarts, a highly selective quite likely fee paying boarding school. Harry Potter benefits from an imbalanced educational system that provides him with privilege and access to powers through birthright alone. Maybe, on the next student demo, we’ll be hearing, “Harry Potter, f**k off back to Hogwarts” instead of this but I doubt it somehow…