Laurie Penny: Elitism, Hogwarts-style

Young people who grew up with the Harry Potter books and films are beginning to tire of waiting to be chosen

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Excitement is mounting over the soon-to-be-released penultimate instalment in the Harry Potter film franchise. But there's trouble at Hogwarts. The real-life Oxford location for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows has become a seething cauldron of student insurrection.

After Vince Cable, the new Voldemort of higher education, cancelled his visit to Oxford University last week, an enormous demonstration convened against the Coalition's proposals to end public education as we know it. The contrast between the wholesome world of Harry Potter, where everyone knows their place, and the furious staff and students bursting through police lines in the real-life Hogwarts, could not be more jarring.

Oxford is part of the prissy aesthetic of British education peddled by the Potterverse, all fiddly buildings, flapping robes and elitism. When I arrived there six years ago, it already bore a worrying resemblance to the quivering traditionalism of Hogwarts, but there was at least some pretence towards a fair admissions policy. If Cable's proposals come in, muggles like me will stand no chance.

As the plebs prepare to be priced out of the new "competitive" universities, the Harry Potter brand exports a nostalgic and mostly imaginary Great British Past of lofty public schools, hearty puddings and blood feuds. The entire premise of the stories fetishises heredity and aristocracy: the wizards are a glittering ubermensch, and those lucky enough to be born into their ranks are destined for a life more resplendent and exciting than anything ordinary non-magical folk can hope for.

Hogwarts is no meritocracy. The literary critic Ilias Yocaris argued in the New York Times that "under a veneer of regimentation and traditional rituals, Hogwarts is a pitiless jungle where competition, violence and the cult of winning run riot." And if the Tories get their way, Oxford and other top universities will be just the same. The Browne report breathlessly conjures just such a vision of education, without anyof the consolatory chocolate frogs.

This is about far more than tuition fees. It's about class, pure and simple. The proposals in the Browne report recommend near total withdrawal of government funding for higher education and open the road for many elite educational institutions to go private.

Children's stories are often bone-deep inscriptions of social propaganda, and the dream of being invited into a privileged world of wonder and excitement just because of who you are is the sustaining fantasy that has drawn children into the world of Harry Potter since 1997. It works precisely because it is also the sustaining fantasy of the age.

That fantasy, however, has proven itself insufficient. For many of today's young people, fairytales of neoliberal transcendence are no longer enough to soothe the sting of social exclusion.

As the Hogwarts express lurches into the station for the last time, young people who grew up with the books and films are beginning to tire of waiting to be chosen. We want to choose our own destinies, rather than having our lives dictated by the wealth of our families. This is why the latest protest, the largest and most volatile Oxford has seen in years, is so significant. More demonstrations are planned, signalling, I hope, the beginning of a broadmovement against the most naked and brazen attack on education attempted by any government in over a century.

One of the most common questions J K Rowling is asked by her young readers is if the muggle and magical worlds will ever be united. In an interview with the BBC in 2004, she replied:

"The magical and muggle worlds will never be rejoined. If a muggle looks at Hogwarts, they will see nothing but a ruined castle with large signs on it saying 'keep out, dangerous building."

Keep out. Dangerous building. That's what we're meant to see when we look at the towers of the privileged, if we're not special enough to be invited in. If the coalition's plans for higher education come into force, that's just what the children of the poor will see when they contemplate going to university.

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