The number of undergraduate students studying philosophy courses at the Australian National University has jumped by about 20 per cent in the second semester, defying expectations humanities courses would see a slump.
First-year students Hannah Shteinman and Jack McEvoy, both 19, who are studying for degrees in philosophy, politics and economics, say philosophy has become a favourite part of their programs.
Ms Shteinman said she did not select philosophy for a direct employment outcome and expected philosophy to be a bit pretentious.
"But it's my favourite subject, and it's the one I do the best in," Ms Shteinman said.
Mr McEvoy said he had enjoyed philosophy as an opportunity to learn how to have big, complex conversations and work on being a better person.
"I think this has been a big year for thinking about world issues and certainly philosophy plays into that. I think for a long time philosophy has been a really important subject," Mr McEvoy said.
"But I think philosophy maybe is more important now but it has always been important, it's just that we've kind of realised its importance and its vitality in creating our culture.
"It's certainly a privilege to be learning about philosophy as we are reaching such a cross section of our society and we have to rethink the way it works."
The head of the university's philosophy school, Professor Christian Barry, said the spike could have been driven by a period of student introspection prompted by coronavirus.
"Things like this have a way of focusing the mind. You have this huge disruption to ordinary life, you're being bombarded with different bits of information, and if you're connected to social media, you're being bombarded with lots of different takes and lots of different bits of data," Professor Barry said.
"So it's sort of natural to try to think, 'Well, how do I make sense of this? I feel like I need to form a view on this.' Maybe that has something to do with it. It's hard to know."
At the beginning of August, there were 1078 undergraduate students enrolled in philosophy at the university. Professor Barry said the school had never had more than 900 students in the second semester.
"I should note one of the largest enrolments of all our enrolments is a first-year course which is precisely on issues of critical thinking and reason, and some baby logic," Professor Barry said.
"Maybe it's not so surprising also in times like now, where there's so many confusing things going on in the world, we're trying to process all sorts of information about things like public health emergencies ... that students are, again, more attracted to develop the kind of skills they can develop to help them address these issues."
Professor Barry said philosophy enrolments had been growing for eight years but recently announced changes to the federal funding model for university places had prompted concern within the faculty.
Federal Education Minister Dan Tehan in June announced new students studying humanities would pay more for their degrees in an effort to encourage students into jobs with clearer employment paths, a move which was widely criticised. The proposal does not affect current students.
Professor Barry said he was concerned the degree would become rarefied and exclusive and seen as an inaccessible choice for students from lower-income households, even though it did lead to good employment opportunities.
"We don't want our degree to be something that is a luxury good, that only people who are financially very comfortable feel they can take a risk on. We want it to be a diverse and inclusive discipline. And changing funding structures certainly isn't conducive to that," he said.