Expelliarmus debitum!

Harry Potter a metaphor for higher education? Kevin Fong explains - almost

September 29, 2011

This year, the world celebrates 10 years of Harry Potter movies. Since the first hit cinema screens in 2001, it and its seven sequels have become the highest-grossing film franchise of all time.

Is their success partly because we see something of our own lives reflected in this tale? Hmm. At face value, the story of an orphan who discovers that he’s a wizard while living in a cupboard under the stairs and then goes on to a stellar academic career at Hogwarts boarding school for magically gifted children doesn’t sound too much like my life.

As the many fans of the series will know, Potter is joined in his adventures by trusty pals Hermione Granger, the school swot, and the impoverished but affable Ron Weasley. Year on year, this trio do battle with their perennial foes: fellow student Draco Malfoy and the infamous dark Lord Voldemort. This they do while simultaneously coping with revision, end-of-year exams and adolescence.

J.K. Rowling has apparently said that mortality is the central theme of the Harry Potter saga, pointing to the death of Harry’s parents and Voldemort’s constant struggle for immortality. But increasingly I’ve come to think that perhaps Harry Potter’s tale is actually a clever and genuinely prescient allegory anticipating the dramatic changes now occurring in our British system of higher education.

Bear with me while I explain.

If you leave aside the pesky detail about loss, death and dying, it’s plain to see that the story actually revolves around issues of access to higher education and social mobility.

Consider this perspective: orphaned Potter, the odds stacked against him, seeks delivery from his lowly, cupboard-dwelling status through education. Distracted from his quest by bastards such as Voldemort and Malfoy (metaphors, respectively, for the injurious effects of financial challenges and paper rounds upon one’s school performance), Potter heroically struggles throughout his school career towards the goal of university entry. But the evil Voldemort grows in power as the literary heptalogy progresses. Anyone can see that Voldemort represents the introduction and later uncapping of university tuition fees.

As the series progresses, Potter finds himself very nearly overwhelmed by practitioners of the dark arts - government ministers, obviously. In fighting the spirit of Voldemort, Potter is battling the frightening spectre of student debt.

In desperation to secure his university place, Potter hedges his bets and turns to magic, Quidditch (presumably in the hope that this might lead to a sports scholarship) and playing the extenuating circumstances card (“Dear Admissions Tutor, I know my grades aren’t great but both my parents were blown up by Voldemort when I was just a baby…”).

Meanwhile, his friend Granger represents the good old blood, sweat, toil and tears route to success. The embodiment of self-determination and meritocracy, Granger’s story reminds us that you can get there if you’re prepared to graft. But there’s a warning, too: her brand of success comes at a price. Granger’s unbalanced approach to life leaves her with no decent extracurricular activities and everyone (except for her super-loyal, nutcase friends) disliking her.

And then there’s good old Weasley. Although his family is barely able to afford his education, he somehow soldiers on. His father, a struggling civil servant within the Ministry of Magic, is symbolic of the much-reduced role of the state in just about everything and of the challenges faced today by public sector workers everywhere.

Each book in the Harry Potter series follows the cycle of an academic year and sees our protagonists wrestling with the demands of school life and exams, but taking time out to slay the occasional mythological creature. This alludes to the cyclical accumulation by today’s undergraduates of enormous student debt, and their recurrent and heroic attempts to bring their debt down with paid work during the summer break.

I haven’t quite worked everything out. What all those owls, rats and frogs mean I can’t quite fathom. And I’m not yet entirely sure what the Platform 9? thing is all about, either - although it does occur to me that running headlong into a brick wall in the hope that something magical is going to happen when you reach it quite accurately describes elements of our current approach to higher education policy.

So there you have it. A decade of changes in the way we do higher education and the secret meaning behind Harry Potter. Probably.

What happens to Potter now that school is finally out isn’t clear. Given that the films grossed squintillions of pounds, I doubt that we’ve heard the last of him. Perhaps there’s room for a remake at some later date. Or perhaps we should just shoot straight for yet another sequel. How about “Harry Potter and the Difficult Postgraduate Career”?

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