Philosophy Enrollment Grows — a Little — in Canada

While the total number of undergraduate philosophy majors in Canada is down since 2010, a recent bump and some anecdotal evidence has University Affairs reporting that “philosophy is having a moment.”

There has been a small bump in the number of philosophy majors, from 4,656 to 4,723 in the period from 2017/18 to 2018/19, reports Ian Coutts. That’s the latest period for which there is data, but Coutts reports on some developments at particular schools, including:

  • 17% increase in philosophy majors at the University of British Columbia since 2009
  • 23% increase in philosophy honors and majors students at the University of Alberta between 2014 and 2020
  • 16% increase in philosophy majors at McGill University between 2014 and 2019
  • 12% increase in the number of students taking philosophy courses in the last year at Athabasca University

Some schools have not seen an increase in philosophy students, such as the University of Calgary and the University of Montreal, but have been “holding steady” during a period of general decline in humanities enrollments.

The article does not specify whether other humanities disciplines at Canadian universities are also experiencing recent enrollment increases, so we don’t know if philosophy’s current “moment” is unusual among the humanities. Coutts, who has an MA in philosophy, thinks that there is something particularly appealing about philosophy to students today:

More than any other humanity subject, more than perhaps any other academic discipline, philosophy seems to match most successfully what might look like the seemingly incompatible concerns of young people today: the desire for material security, which has gotten a whole lot harder in the last couple of decades, and a deep-seated anxiety about the future of our world.

It may be that increased efforts by philosophy departments to counter stereotypes about the career prospects of philosophy majors (with information such as this or this or this or this), or perhaps philosophy’s increased visibility in popular culture (tv, podcasts, etc.) are helping philosophy’s image with students, but that is speculative at this point. Professional market research (“For philosophy?!” Yes.) might be useful.

Related: Facts and Figures About U.S. Philosophy Departments

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3 years ago

A few things to note:

  1. UBC has invested heavily in its philosophy department in the last couple decades. The department today is significantly larger than it was in 2009–by my count, it increased by 9 faculty (counting only T/TT, non-emeritus, non-cognate faculty). The university itself has gone from an undergraduate student population of 36 771 to 46 322 (on the main campus; so, not counting the Okanagan campus).
  2. McGill, by contrast, has been chronically underfunded in the same period (both the department and the university as a whole), and struggled with several retirements and lateral moves which are only now starting to be replaced.
  3. Athabasca is entirely online, and so probably had an advantage going into the pandemic.
  4. Université de Montréal’s department benefits from the fact that all Québec students–the vast majority of its student population–are required to take a philosophy course prior to coming to university. That means it’s not a discovery major in Francophone universities.
Amy Schmitter
2 years ago

It’s kind of amazing that we at the U of Alberta have grown so much, although the period just before the times cited above may have seen a real drop in enrollment (for multiple external reasons). For the last 10 years or so, we have seen drastic cuts in our funding and numbers. We now have about half the number of tenured (there are no untenured t-t faculty) as we had roughly 10 years ago — and we were not at all over staffed then. The funding for graduate students from the university and province has dropped precipitously, and our support staff have been treated very shabbily, with several ill-thought out “reorganizations,” including one currently under way; aside from the human toll, they make it extremely difficult to perform basic functions, or even to know who to go to for information. Many of these are problems spread across the Faculty of Arts, and to some degree, the university as a whole, although it does sometimes seem as if our small department gets the shortest end of a very short stick. But it’s been about a decade of increasing austerity measures and cage match bouts for resources, which is both demoralizing and makes it hard to offer our students all we’d like to do. If there’s any credit to be given for the increase in numbers, it goes to my super-hardworking colleagues, students and staff — they are a fabulous bunch.

Jonah Dunch
2 years ago

Speaking as a current U of A philosophy honors student, I suspect one reason the U of A philosophy department has had an uptick in enrollment since 2014 is that our Undergraduate Philosophy Association was founded in the fall of 2014. The UPA has brought many students from outside of philosophy into the fold, and has strengthened ties among students within the department. This may have helped the department retain existing majors and honors students and attain new ones. I’d be curious to know if undergraduate groups at other schools, including the others mentioned in the post, have played a role in attracting students.