UNSW Professor Emerita Deborah Brennan will co-lead a Productivity Commission inquiry into Australia’s early childhood education and care (ECEC) system.

Prof. Brennan's appointment was announced last week by the federal Minister for Education, Jason Clare, who described the inquiry as “the next step in considering how to build an affordable, accessible, high quality, universal early education system”.

“The Australian government sees early childhood education and care as a critical component of social and economic policy and has asked the Productivity Commission to conduct an inquiry into the sector. Parents, policymakers, early childhood educators and employers have all expressed huge interest in this area,” Prof. Brennan said. 

“I’ve been appointed to join the Commission and to co-lead the review because of my background in ECEC research and policy. It’s a huge challenge, not least because of the complexities of federalism, but it’s an exciting opportunity and I’m looking forward to the challenge.

“Australia has the foundations of an excellent ECEC system, but many families cannot find or afford the services they need, the quality of provision can be inconsistent, and it is increasingly difficult to recruit and retain early childhood educators.”

At the government’s request, the inquiry will consider a universal 90 per cent childcare subsidy rate.

The inquiry will also work on options to support affordability of, and access to, quality ECEC services that meet the needs of families and children, developmental and educational outcomes for Australian children and economic growth, through enabling workforce participation for women.

“Internationally, there is huge interest in universal, high quality early learning and care. I would say that the main reasons for this are to do with social equality, educational standards, and parents’ (especially mothers’) workforce participation,” she said.

Prof. Brennan will work with the other members of the commission leading the inquiry, which will start 1 March 2023, with a final report to be provided to the government by 30 June 2024.

The inquiry will focus on removing barriers to workforce participation for parents and providing a foundation for children’s future wellbeing and success, centred on identifying solutions that will chart the course for universal, affordable ECEC, in the tradition of universal Medicare and universal superannuation.

A leading researcher in family policy, gender and politics

Prof. Brennan has been with UNSW's Social Policy Research Centre (SPRC) since 2007 and says it has a very strong group of researchers involved in ECEC policy. 

“I mentor some of the wonderful researchers at SPRC and I still research and publish in the area. SPRC continues to provide a fantastically supportive environment for my research and policy work, as does the Faculty of Arts, Design & Architecture,” Prof. Brennan said.

Professor Claire Annesley, Dean of UNSW Arts, Design & Architecture, said: “With decades of research on early years policy under her belt, there is no one more experienced and respected than Deb to head up the government’s Productivity Commission inquiry.

“There are moments when research expertise and political goals align to lead to major change. I’m excited and optimistic about the opportunity presented by Deb’s co-leadership role at the Commission.”

Prof. Brennan is an internationally recognised expert on social policy and gender studies, as well as a committed feminist who co-authored No Fit Place for Women (a study of women in the NSW parliament). She is one of Australia’s leading researchers in comparative social and family policy and gender and politics. She has contributed to national and international debates in her field and has advised the Australian and UK governments on the development of policies for families and children.

“Policymakers around the world are engaged in the exchange of ideas and research. Over the years I have been invited to speak with Ministers, public servants, and policymakers in quite a few countries, especially the UK and Canada. In the 1970s and 1980s, Australia was seen as a world leader in the provision of government-funded, community-based childcare,” Prof. Brennan said.

“In 2008, shortly after I came to UNSW, I was invited to tour Canada, speaking in six cities across the country about Australian ECEC policy. Canada is currently engaging in deep reform of its ECEC sector and the ties between our two countries are strong.” 

Prof. Brennan is a member of several international research networks including the Feminist International Institutionalist Network (FIIN), the Political and Social Economy of Care (PASEC), the International Network on Leave Policies and Research, and a network on Migration and Care in the Asia-Pacific.