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British History in Canada: No Jobs, No Field

The 2024 Maclean’s University Rankings lists fifteen “medical/doctoral” universities in Canada. All offer history PhDs, and though not all PhD-granting institutions are on the list, these fifteen major universities offer a reasonable barometer of the state of the discipline in Canadian academe. Comparing their history departments, it’s hard to see any crisis – at least, any crisis specific to British history. None of the twelve anglophone or bilingual institutions on the list is without at least one full-time faculty member who identifies Britain or the British empire as a focus of their work, and most have more. In some places, Britain seems overrepresented. Fully nine faculty members at the University of Toronto – Canada’s largest history department – appear when one searches the faculty directory for “Britain and Ireland.” So is this a picture of health?

Appearances can mislead. Not all faculty who include “Britain” or “British empire” among their keywords are historians of either. Even of those who are, it is hard to say how many were hired to do “British history.” I think of myself as a historian of Britain and Ireland, but the position I’ve held for sixteen years is in “early modern Europe,” and most of my teaching has treated Britain and Ireland as part of that world. In the unlikely event that I’m replaced when I leave the job, it probably won’t be a historian of Britain who takes my spot. But then, at my institution and many others, “replacements” no longer exist. Hiring pitches designed to win administrators’ favour are couched primarily in the nebulous and shifting thematic language of strategic plans, making place and period secondary. The persistence of “Britain” in Canadian history departments may not be a matter of design but an echo of the field’s past prominence in the handful of doctoral programs whose graduates disproportionately fill tenure-track jobs.

A black and white photograph shows the exterior of Burwash Hall at the University of Toronto.
Burwash Hall, University of Toronto, 1924. Image courtesy Archives of Ontario via Wikimedia Commons.

With respect to research funding, the picture isn’t much clearer. The major source of humanities research funding in Canada is the Social Science and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC). Using the crude method of searching the SSHRC awards database for all grants to history projects including “Britain” in their titles or keywords – SSHRC does not provide statistics for places studied, as opposed to themes – yields some impressions. The first is the significance of funding for graduate research: for 1998-2002, a mean of just over 8 grants were awarded to “British” projects (awards in the discipline “History” with “Britain” in titles and keywords) in each competition year. For the decade starting 2003, when new grants for MA and PhD students were introduced, that number nearly tripled, to 24.4 per year, with a corresponding increase in research money paid out. These numbers have declined in the last few years, but this may in part be an effect of the COVID-19 pandemic. In any case, unlike private institutions such as the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in the US, SSHRC has not eliminated any of the funding programs on which Canadian students, postdocs, or faculty studying British history have come to rely. If there’s a crisis here, it’s not a crisis in British studies. In fact, the persistence of British studies may mask a more general crisis in history.

It’s not that research money for history has dried up, either. More Insight grants – the main source of support for faculty research – went to historians in 2018-22 (63 grants per year, on average) than in 2012-17 (46.8). The success rate of history applicants surged from under 25% in the early 2010s to around and often over 50% in the late 2010s and early 2020s. History’s share of SSHRC research money shows no obvious pattern of decline. Whether the value of the grants is keeping pace with inflation is another question; the real value of SSHRC graduate scholarships, stuck at the same dollar amount for two decades, has dropped by a third in that time. What has fallen even more dramatically, however, is the number of historians applying for funds in the first place. From 2013 through 2018 there were never fewer than 143 history applicants for Insight grants; from 2018 through 2022, there were never more than that. In 2021 there were 105; in 2022, just 77 (compiled using SSHRC’s Competition Statistics dashboard). The numbers for SSHRC Doctoral Fellowships tell a similar story: from 2002-3 to 2013-14, a mean of over 413 students applied for funding every year. From 2018-19 to 2022-3, the last five years for which data are available, that number was below 228. That’s a 45% drop in funding applications.

Which brings us to two factors highlighted in the Canadian Historical Association’s 2022 report on “the Future of the History PhD in Canada”: university funding for doctoral students, and the tenure-track job market that awaits them. To the first, it’s important that funding levels in Canadian doctoral programs are far lower, and typically shorter-term (four-year packages are the norm), than at high-ranked US institutions. Moreover, tuition and fees are paid out of nominal doctoral funding packages, rather than being waived. Thus even “fully” funded doctoral candidates at the top Canadian institutions wind up with expenses that exceed their income. For competitive students in Canada, staying here for doctoral work in almost any subfield of history is a dubious proposition. For international students ineligible for SSHRC money, coming here makes even less sense.

Further, even the top Canadian history programs have abysmal records when it comes to placing graduates in secure academic jobs. The two best programs for tenure-track placement in Canada – the University of Toronto and York University – have placement rates of 14%. The third-best program for landing a tenure-line history position in Canada is Yale. This brings up a final consideration that does relate to British studies as a subject. Most Canadian PhDs who get tenure-track jobs in Canada are specialists in Canadian history. Conversely, most Canadian academic jobs focusing on other geographical areas, including Britain, go to PhDs from major American, British, or French doctoral programs – albeit many of them Canadian citizens or permanent residents, like me.

So if you are considering the professional study of British history in Canada, you must face several facts: even the best doctoral funding in the country is inadequate to live on; even the best programs in the country give you little shot at a secure academic job; and even if a fraction of those tenured faculty currently in the field here do get replaced when they retire – a matter that is unlikely to be in the hands of their academic colleagues – it will probably be from larger, better funded, and more prestigious programs elsewhere. Whether you envision doctoral work as a pathway to an academic career or just a four-to-six-year period of pursuing your intellectual passion, your best bet is to leave.

That is a bleak note to end on, but more important than pessimism (or optimism, for that matter) is the recognition that the problems affecting our subfield in Canada are not subfield-level problems. They have nothing to do with popular interest in the topic or student willingness to sign up for lecture courses or the intellectual vitality of research in the field. They are problems that affect our disciplines and our institutions in toto. The crisis in British studies is the crisis in academic employment, it is the crisis in university governance, it is the crisis of social disinvestment in learning – and it is insoluble apart from them.


Ted McCormick is Professor of History and Fellow in the School of Irish Studies at Concordia University in Montreal. He is the author of William Petty and the Ambitions of Political Arithmetic (Oxford, 2009) and Human Empire: Mobility and Demographic Thought in the British Atlantic World, 1500-1800 (Cambridge, 2022), each of which won the John Ben Snow Prize.


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