Celebrating 40 years of impact

2020 marked 40 years of impact for the Social Policy Research Centre and to celebrate this milestone, we asked our staff, students, past directors, research collaborators and other supporters of our work to share their reflections about the Centre.

Webpage montage SPRC
I congratulate you on all that you've achieved in those 40 years, on the reputation you've built, the relationships you've fostered and the positive social impact that drives your work. Long may you continue to advance social justice in our community.
Professor Ian Jacobs, President and Vice-Chancellor, UNSW Sydney (20152022)
Happy 40th birthday to the Social Policy Research Centre here at UNSW. Forty years of leading research agendas on poverty, inequality, wellbeing and justice... research that shapes public debates and influences policy in our communities both nationally and internationally. Forty years of research that's also striving to improve the lives of individuals and communities, especially those experiencing disadvantage or marginalisation.
Professor Claire Annesley, Dean, UNSW Arts Architecture & Design

Historical reflections from our past directors

"Over the years the SPRC has focused on how people live and has had a great deal of success in framing issues, researching problems, developing data and proposing solutions... You have had 40 years of tremendous achievement. I hope that the next 40 are just as productive."

Professor Adam Graycar, Director 1980–1985

"SPRC exists to make a difference to the world by producing robust evidence and deep theoretical insights into social policies which enable policymakers and advocates to use our research to make the world a more equitable place for vulnerable and oppressed populations."

Professor Ilan Katz, Director 2007–2011

"The wisdom and knowledge gained by the SPRC over its 40 years positions it to continue to make a valuable and important contribution not only to social policy and practice in Australia but also internationally... The past and present at SPRC are to be celebrated."

Professor Kelley Johnson, Director 2014–2016

"It is difficult to imagine an Australia without the SPRC. Over the 40 years since its establishment, the centre has contributed to a huge range of policy-relevant social research... Few research centres have played such a central role in promoting the discipline of which they are part..."

Professor Peter Saunders, Director 1985–2007

"Our canvas needs to be both macro and micro, to address the technical questions of distribution and the social questions of practices and values. In its time, SPRC has been consistently unhesitating in taking on these tasks and occupying these spaces."

Associate Professor kylie valentine, Acting Director 2011–2014

"Over its 40 years, SPRC has established itself as a trusted public voice, a go-to source of authoritative information, recognised for taking a fundamentally ethical and humanitarian approach to tackling pressing issues of social justice and inequality of all kinds."

Professor Lyn Craig, Director 2016–2017

In preparing for these anniversaries I've been so touched by the many many warm and generous messages from our partners and colleagues and these messages have spoken to the quality and impact of our research but most importantly to our trustworthiness and honesty in dealings with community.
Professor Carla Treloar, Director, Social Policy Research Centre & Centre for Social Research in Health

Peter Saunders' Memoir

Scribbling A Way: My Journey Through the Foothills of Scholarship charts Peter Saunders’ journey from his modest childhood on a council estate in post-war Britain through school and university. It highlights the events that steered him towards an unplanned but rewarding and successful academic career. 

Download eBook (PDF)

“The Saunders memoir provides a unique picture of an academic career. The reader cannot fail to admire his energy and achievements ...  He manages to tell his story from childhood to retirement with humour, modesty, generosity to colleagues and friends” (Emeritus Professor Jonathan Bradshaw, CBE FBA, University of York)

“Engaging, lively, funny and informative ... Peter keeps us entertained with his insights into the complexities of intertwining career and family, and occasional amusing anecdotes about the eccentricities of colleagues along the way” (Professor Janeen Baxter, Director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Children and Families over the Life Course, University of Queensland)

“A compelling story about the joys of academic life from one of today's internationally best known Australian social policy researchers ... A beautiful and inspiring story” (Professor Bea Cantillon, Director of the Herman Deleeck Centre for Social Policy, University of Antwerp)

Testimonials from our collaborators

  • My first interaction with SPRC was when I attended the 2009 Australian Social Policy Conference. As a relative newcomer to Australian social policy having recently joined the staff of the Australian Council of Social Service, the conference provided critical foundations to my understanding of the issues, interests and opportunities to use social policy research to advance social justice in Australia. My lasting impressions from that conference revolve around a series of stunning papers by young, fiercely intelligent and articulate women whose scholarship skilfully bridged lived experience, research and policy application. Those women have gone on to be leaders in their fields and continue to set the highest standards of scholarship grounded in the impacts of social policy in people’s lives. SPRC’s influence extends beyond the academy, shaping and improving the impact of some of the most significant areas of social policy in Australia. 

  • Happy 40th birthday to the SPRC and very warmest congratulations to all who have built the reputation of the Centre as a world class leader in policy-relevant research. Your collective efforts, led by highly distinguished scholars, continue to advance knowledge around key social issues and reforms that are critical to the lives and livelihoods of some of the most disadvantaged in our community.

    The Centre for Children and Young People (CCYP) at Southern Cross University is very proud of its continuing association with the SPRC. The productive research relationship we established under the Commonwealth Government’s Collaborative Research Network (CRN) program has proven to be a flagship of the scheme in terms of sustainability, as evidenced in ongoing collaborative research activity between the CCYP and SPRC all these years later. For a regional University such as SCU, the resulting capacity building generated by the CCYP’s close links with the SPRC, has returned immeasurable benefits.

    Given the unprecedented challenges currently facing Higher Education in Australia, as well as the broader community, the SPRC’s distinguished track record in providing high quality, high impact research on critical social issues remains a beacon within the sector. We wish you well as you celebrate this impressive milestone and commend the work of the Centre for its significant contributions to policy research and Australian society.

  • The Social Policy Research Centre has undertaken high quality policy relevant research for 40 years. I congratulate and thank them for their wonderful contribution to public policy in both Australia and internationally. In particular, their work on measuring and understanding poverty, disadvantage and social exclusion has been ground breaking and essential for informing public policy and the broader community on key national issues. This work has included adults, children, young people as well as other groups who are disproportionately impacted by poverty, such as those living with a disability.

    As well as bringing deep technical expertise to their research and the use of innovative new methods, the SPRC has brought a deeply ethical and respectful approach to researching with vulnerable and disadvantaged populations. Their research has been purposeful, with a strong focus on how findings can be made accessible and help improve the lives of vulnerable people.

    Collaborative and effective partnerships with a range of government, non-government and philanthropic partners has been a hallmark of the work of the SPRC. This approach is a key dimension for ensuring research is useful, informed by a range of insights and of high quality.

    Congratulations on this important milestone and all the best for your continued contribution.

  • SPRC has been for 40 years at the forefront of research in Australia on policy-relevant social issues. Core to the areas of focus have been multi-disciplinary and intersectional focus. The key issue is its relevance, and its central importance to policy and the role of government interventions that affect families, communities and broader society. The intersection between macro issues (like economics) and the micro issues like personal relationships, has been sensitively interwoven through SPRC’s history of projects. I’m reminded of work evaluating the Communities for Children, with an innovative large-scale comparison design to look at community-level impacts of government-funded NGO interventions. The scope of impact is immense. As a child maltreatment researcher, the focus on child safety and wellbeing in areas like statutory child protection services, statutory service reform, out-of-home care, family support services has always been nuanced, sophisticated – and of practical relevance to government, service providers and practitioners.

    All the best for your celebrations!

  • I have had the pleasure to visit SPRC couple of times. The longest visit took place in the beginning of the new millennium. SPRC has been one of the leading sites for comparative studies on social policy be the question on institutional structures, spending on public policies and their distributional consequences in terms of poverty and wellbeing. In my teaching on comparative social policy, I constantly use publications and other materials produced by SPRC.

  • I study the causes and consequences of policies and institutions in the world's rich longstanding-democratic nations. To understand the Australian case, I've long relied heavily on the research done and disseminated by the SPRC. Its analyses of poverty, inequality, social policy, living standards and more have been vital to my work. Equally important, the SPRC is very effective at communicating its own research findings and those of others in an accessible way.

    In 2017 I was able to attend the SPRC's Australian Social Policy Conference. This was one of the best conferences I've ever been involved with, due mainly to the mix of academic research and on-the-ground policy discussion.

    I'm a huge fan of the SPRC. May it continue to thrive.

  • The Drug Policy Modelling Program (DPMP) led by Professor Alison Ritter has been instrumental in helping to shape alcohol and other drug policy direction in Queensland and across Australia.

    From designing evidence-based tools for service planning through to developing our understanding the complex interplay of health and criminal justice responses on the health and wellbeing of people who use drugs and our communities, the work of the DPMP has informed and supported positive shifts in the policy environment.

    Their work on the lived effects of stigma and discrimination has helped our system managers to more deeply reflect upon the importance of meeting the challenge of drug law reform and their analysis of the first 20 years of decriminalisation as a policy approach has starkly illustrated the gap between policy intent and outcome. 

    More recently, QNADA has been pleased to commission the DPMP to inform our work with Primary Health Networks around improving access to primary care for people who use drugs, which will support practical change in primary care that steps us closer to achieving health equity.

    We look forward to working with the DPMP for many years to come.

  • Forty years is an important landmark for a research centre – it covers decades of policy optimism, policy change and policy questioning. Outputs from Australia’s Social Policy Research Centre (SPRC) have been one way in international researchers such as my colleagues and I have illuminated policy debates in Australia to the benefit of our understanding.

    Within my own area of study, particularly care and disability, SPRC has been a ‘go to’ resource for accurate analysis and thoughtful discussions. While there is much to celebrate from the past 40 years, SPRC is currently producing insights into the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on workers in disability services that will be of wide interest in policy addressing future pandemics or disasters.  It has done so by building swiftly on a pre-existing study – illustrative of the flexibility of Centre staff in developing their work to meet contemporary policy needs. Learning from the past is also a hallmark of its work, notably work on child mistreatment, that has informed much needed redress but also theoretical understandings to evidence practice.

    Forty years provides the opportunity to evidence how the Centre has nurtured new generations of talented and diverse scholars. Its national reach across widening areas of social policy is both inspirational and awesome.

  • I have been involved in the work of the SPRC since the early 1990s. I worked for National Shelter at the time and found the SPRC national conference an excellent way to network and stay up to date with the latest research on poverty, housing and homelessness. Since moving into academia I have maintained an ongoing connection with the SPRC. A number of years ago I was invited to be an external member on the UNSW review panel of the SPRC. As I listened to SPRC staff talk about their work during the review it became clear that there was a great deal of staff pride in the many achievements of the centre. Government departments were also glowing in their praise for the high impact research undertaken by the SPRC. I always look forward to being part of the Australian Social Policy Conference, expertly organised by the SPRC. The conference brings together a diverse and impressive range of passionate and talented researchers and policy makers from across Australia, New Zealand and other parts of the world. In 2017 I was delighted to be invited to be one of the keynote speakers at the conference. It was a real honour to address the conference, given my long association with the centre and the very high regard in which I hold the work of the SPRC.

  • I have seen the SPRC in action for a decade, and I have the greatest respect for the team and its work. I first worked with them on the evaluation of the Keep Them Safe child protection reforms, while in the NSW Department of Premier and Cabinet in the early 2010s. The complexity of the reform and evaluation were daunting, and the sophistication of their work speak for themselves.

    At Uniting, I inherited a long-standing relationship which included a transformative evaluation of Newpin in the early 2010s and research into community influences on child development. I also worked with them on a narrative study of young people in care. This was methodologically ambitious. It was also useful: it’s informed practice improvement and innovations in our services for young people transitioning from care. It’s been a pleasure to work with people who’ve been achieving research impact, and at such scale and quality, since before it was cool. Long may it continue.

  • Congratulations to SPRC on 40 years. It is an achievement to have survived for so long. But more importantly, the SPRC has had a significant, enduring and positive impact on Australian social policy understanding and capacity.

    It has provided a vehicle for the work of many well-known and influential researchers – for example, Bettina Cass, Sheila Shaver, Bruce Bradbury, Peter Whiteford and the inestimable Peter Saunders.

    SPRC’s work on poverty and inequality has been critical as were the social policy conferences that SPCR regularly convened over many years. They enabled many social policy analysts and researchers from different sectors to hear from overseas experts and to share their knowledge and experience with others. 

    At a time of change and uncertainty we will need excellent research and social policy to ensure our institutional arrangements (in areas such as social security, labour market assistance, age care or mental health, to name a few) are strengthened in their capacity respond more effectively and appropriately in the future. The work of SPRC will be critical to this challenge. My best wishes for a strong and productive future.

  • I have benefited from the activities and people of the Social Policy Research Centre in many ways over many years. As a student in the 1980s, the centre’s publications were an important resource in my social policy studies. As an emerging researcher in the 1990s, one of my earliest collaborations was with a colleague at the SPRC. During the 2000s, I spent two periods of study leave at the SPRC, enjoying its intellectually rich and very friendly work environment. In more recent years I have collaborated often with colleagues at the SPRC and been privileged to participate in the international networks and events for which the centre is a key node. The biannual Australian Social Policy Conferences that the centre leads have been highlights of the academic calendar for me for more than 20 years. The opportunities each conference offers to learn from and discuss with researchers and policy practitioners who share an interest in Australian social policy and social welfare are invaluable. What I value most about what SPRC does, and who the SPRC people are, is the shared commitment to increasing equality in access to all social goods in Australia, and to rigorous research that reveals the policies and practices that support that goal. Congratulations to all on your 40th birthday!

  • In Spring 2002 I was able to spend a semester in residence at the SPRC working with Peter Saunders, Bruce Bradbury and a host of younger scholars like Peter Siminski and Gerry Redmond. It was a wonderful experience and a chance to learn about the challenges and successes of the Australian welfare state. I found the staff cheerful and supportive, the seminars interesting and the atmosphere very conducive to learning. I have since been able to stay in touch with many of the members of SPRC and follow its ups and downs. But in the end the SPRC was and is a true public good that helps all of Australia understand the way that policy affects the poor, inequality, upward mobility and social justice more broadly. I am happy to see it celebrate its 40th birthday and wish it at least 40 more.

  • I have been associated with the SPRC, and its predecessor the SWRC, from the very beginning. I was involved in the development of the proposal to create such a Centre, leading to the announcement in 1976 by the then Minister for Social Security, Senator Margaret Guilfoyle, that the SWRC would be established at the University of NSW. I also served on the Research Management Committee of the Centre for some years.

    The Centre has made a major contribution over 40 years and has remained true to its original purpose. It has established an outstanding reputation for social research both in Australia and overseas; it has made a major contribution to original theoretical research (particularly in the areas of poverty measurement and inequality) as well as more practical and applied policy analysis, research and evaluation; it has maintained a multi-disciplinary approach and has engaged in successful collaborative activity; it has trained many in the social policy field (including postgraduate students) who now work in government, academia or the community sector; and it has produced an excellent publications series and regular and frequent newsletters.

    The Social Policy Conference is now a highlight every two years for all in the broad social policy field. The Centre has also hosted many distinguished international visitors and has always sought to benchmark its activities at the international level.

    The Centre has made a significant impact. It has made a difference to how we look at issues of social policy in Australia and has contributed to more evidence informed policy. These achievements are very much to the credit of the staff of the Centre and the leadership shown by the various Directors.

  • Professor Ritter and her team at DPMP, SPRC are outstanding professionals who make a significant contribution to alcohol and other drugs policy across Australia and internationally. Their research and project work are of the highest quality and as a team they also make working with them a pleasure. In my role I have engaged with DPMP, SPRC directly for project work they have undertaken for the Mental Health Alcohol and Other Drugs Branch in Queensland and participated in work they have led nationally. Professor Ritter’s skill and ability in delivering, analysing and synthesising consultation with diverse groups and individuals about alcohol and other drug policy is unparalleled in my experience. I wish SPRC a very happy birthday!

  • I was a PhD student at the SPRC from early 1996 until mid-1999, where I was co-supervised by Professor Sheila Shaver. It was my time at the SPRC that established my intellectual development and shaped my career as an academic. I have much to be thankful for. Happy 40th birthday to the SPRC!

    Over 40 years the Social Policy Research Centre has set the agenda for Australian research on inequality and social justice. The Centre’s research has always been high impact and visible, methodologically pluralist, and critically engaged with policy ideas. This includes: its pioneering economic research on understanding poverty and social security expenditure; to gendering social policy research to focus on informal labour and care work; and to its leading focus now on disability and health inequities.

  • Social Policy Research Centre has been one of Australia’s leading policy research centres for 40 years. SPRC combines world-class excellence in policy-oriented academic research in areas such as poverty, inequality and social wellbeing, with highly impactful engagement with government, through its research and evaluations of government policies and programs. From my perspective, SPRC is one of Australia’s leading sources of social policy research and also one of the most compelling counter-examples to the argument that Australia’s high quality university researchers do not engage with real world issues of policy and practice.

    SPRC provided one of the core models for establishing the Institute for Social Science Research (ISSR) at the University of Queensland in 2008. In developing our ideas and design for ISSR we looked to SPRC to help define the kind of work we aspired to do and the kind of research entity we wanted to build. In Australia, SPRC most directly exemplified our ambition for ISSR.

    I have worked with SPRC researchers on several collaborations, including an ARC Linkage Grant on improving educational outcomes for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, and most recently an ARC Learned Academies Special Project on the use of Big Data for Social Policy. These projects highlight several of the core concerns of the centre – data and evidence for policy, social justice, disadvantage, wellbeing and children and young people. 

    The Institute for Social Science Research also has many researchers who are strong readers and consumers of SPRC’s academic and policy work, which typically informs much of our own research and policy work.

    ISSR was also fortunate to have Professor Peter Saunders as an external reviewer in our seven-year Institute Review. We approached Peter because of his international standing in the field, and because of his experience and leadership as SPRC Director. We knew that we would get a fair but searching examination of our performance and future plans that would be immensely valuable to us. We were not disappointed.

    On behalf of ISSR I would like to wish SPRC an extremely happy 40th birthday, and although we do not need the competition, I also wish the Centre all the best for the next 40 years.

  • A very happy 40th anniversary to all at the fabulous SPRC.

    For many years, SPRC has been a valuable source of knowledge, inspiration and collaboration for me, and for teams I have led at Leeds and Sheffield Universities. I have been welcomed to SPRC many times; Each visit has included vibrant public seminars and resulted in fruitful collaborations.

    These have been important for my scholarship on care and caring. SPRC enabled me to meet numerous Australia government officials and carers’ advocacy organisations, and in 2013 set up my guest lecture to civil servants in Canberra. It has enabled me to publish research papers, reports and edited books with Bettina Cass, Trish Hill, kylie valentine and others. Prof Cass and Dr Hill made productive visits to collaborate with my teams in the UK and in 2014 Bettina Cass and I spoke on The challenge of caring at a House of Lords Dinner Debate and House of Commons Seminar.     

    I participated in SPRC’s important Carers and Social Inclusion project, and SPRC and the Sustainable Care programme I lead are linked in a fruitful current partnership. We have visited SPRC as team several times for visits that have been inspirational and productive for all participating colleagues.   

Reflections from our staff

  • One of the reports that I am really proud of is from the Budget Standards: A new healthy living minimum income standard for low paid and unemployed Australians project with Professor Peter Saunders. This project built on previous Australian and international research to develop a set of budgets for low paid and unemployed Australians and their families.

    New Minimum Income for Healthy Living Budget Standards for Low-Paid and Unemployed Australians

  • I had the good fortune to work on many fascinating and challenging topics at SPRC. The report that had the most surprising impact was Financing the Future: An Equitable and Sustainable Approach to Early Childhood Education and Care which I co-authored with Dr Elizabeth Adamson. This report was commissioned by Early Childhood Australia and Goodstart Early Learning in the context of a Productivity Commission inquiry into making early childhood education and care (ECEC) services more ‘flexible, affordable and accessible’. The model we developed was intended to reflect the reasonable costs of delivering a high quality service and to target assistance on low and middle income families. It was designed to reduce the chance of public funds being used to subsidise luxury or premium service elements or underwriting excessive profits. As well as proposing a solution to the immediate issue confronting policymakers, we outlined a long-term vision for a universal, high-quality, low-fee system that would focus on the needs and interests of children as well as supporting parental workforce participation. Many advocacy and non-government organisations drew on our work in their submissions to the inquiry, it was cited in the Commission’s final report and continues to be cited. 

    Brennan, D. and Adamson, E. (2014). Financing the Future: An equitable and sustainable approach to early childhood education and care, SPRC Report 01/2014. Social Policy Research Centre, University of New South Wales.

  • I was fortunate enough to join the Social Welfare Research Centre (as it was then named) in its inaugural year, 1980, and enjoyed working with colleagues there until 1984. After 20 years at the University of Sydney, I was appointed to the Social Policy Research Centre in 2005, retiring in 2012. Over those 12 years in total, I engaged in research with excellent, inspiring colleagues, supervised many splendid higher degree research students, and had the stimulus of working with a number of research partners in Commonwealth and State governments and in community sector organisations. It is this mix of talents, so generative of research which translates to policy, which leads me to choose the project below as the one which I most appreciated and found most stimulating, and which has been significant in the arena of policy advocacy.

    The project Investing in Care undertaken between the Australian Human Rights Commission and the SPRC resulted in the following publications: Australian Human Rights Commission (2013) Investing in Care: Recognising and valuing those who care, Vols 1 and 2, Australian Human Rights Commission, Sydney. The range of researchers across both organisations shows the depth of the collaboration: from the Social Policy Research Centre, Bettina Cass, Trish Hill, Myra Hamilton and Cathy Thomson; from the Australian Human Rights Commission, Elizabeth Broderick, Sex Discrimination Commissioner, and the Sex Discrimination team – Alison Aggarwal, Dimity Hodge, Pooja Chowdhary and Frieda Lee; and Elena Katrakis, CEO Carers NSW, was a project advisor. The project and the resulting two volumes covered issues as significant as: The Impact and the Costs of Care and developed a multidimensional Case for Change, including the Social case, the Economic case, the Business case and the Human Rights Case. Research, analyses, case studies and arguments for reform in the Reports have been used extensively in advocacy for reform of the policy treatment of caregiving.

  • Congratulations to the SPRC on your 40 years birthday. The SPRC has been for all these years an iconic research institution admired by all in the social policy field. The Centre’s work covers a very wide range of areas including poverty and social inequality, housing, childcare, child welfare, disability and carers. When the welfare information function was added in 1992 to the Federal Government’s Australian Institute of Health (AIHW), we had the opportunity to consult the work of the Centre to plan our work program. This really was very useful as we were able to concentrate on information issues that needed attention. Professor Bettina Cass of the Centre was instrumental in the establishment the welfare information function and was an Institute Board member guiding the early years of the work program. Professor Peter Saunders assisted with poverty measures, read and commented on many of the Institutes reports. He gave keynote speeches and seminars at the AIHW. Other Centre people have also assisted. The AIHW has benefitted greatly from them all.

    The excellent work of the Centre has continued. May the Centre flourish in the next 40 years.

  • In June 2018, the Drug Policy Modelling Program (DPMP) joined the Social Policy Research Centre after 12 years at the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre (NDARC). Drug and alcohol policy sits at the intersection of health policy and social policy. Joining SPRC has facilitated a greater recognition of the intersections between health and social policy, and provided the opportunity for pursuing research and policy advocacy in:

    • joined up, holistic government policy responses;
    • the integration of social and health policy areas; and
    • greater inter-disciplinary endeavours across political science, public policy and health policy.

    One example of our work since joining SPRC has been a focus on the Federal Government’s policy endeavours to drug test welfare recipients. Strong objections from multiple experts and sectors included concerns regarding the lack of evidence supporting a relationship between drug use and employment, the dire absence of available drug treatment, the costs associated with the proposal, and the view that it is a punitive and discriminatory policy. Our analysis of the moral or normative positions that sit behind this policy proposal revealed stark differences between advocates for the proposal and its opponents. Three moral foundations support the proposal to drug test welfare recipients: contractualism, paternalism and communitarianism. Contractualism (mutual obligation) reflects the moral position that the relationship between citizens and the state should be based on reciprocal agreement, with mutual obligations. Those who receive income support should be subject to conditions. Paternalism enables those ‘conditions’ to be ones where the individual is protected from the consequences of their own “poor” decision-making (such as consuming an illicit drug). And this is morally justifiable in the communitarian sense of the importance of community solidarity and social cohesion; the collective good is greater than individual freedom. In contrast, the moral foundations put forward by those opposed to the Bill were utilitarian and human rights based. Most objections to the proposal concerned arguments that the harms outweigh the benefits – a consequentialist, utilitarian moral position. In addition, opponents argued that the proposal infringes human rights including the right to social security, the right to privacy, the right to an adequate standard of living, and the right to equality and non-discrimination. Whilst ever advocates and opponents stick to their respective moral foundations, without addressing the other’s concerns, the arguments tend to be unproductive. There are important lessons for future social policy advocacy: we need to make explicit the moral underpinnings of policy proposals and effective advocacy needs to speak to the position of opponents. Achieving such a vision is no simple feat, but no doubt best realised through our commitment to inter-disciplinary endeavours.  

  • The overarching goal of the Drug Policy Modelling Program is to achieve alcohol and other drug policy that is fair, just, evidence-informed and responsive to the changing needs of Australians. There are many ways to influence policy from the inside or from the outside; generating compelling research evidence, advocating with human stories and passion, and working in concert with advocacy organisations. We engage in all of these, but our partnerships with governments have been critical to the success of the DPMP. At both federal and state/territory levels, we have been able to inform and shape policy. Federally the development of the new National Treatment Framework, facilitated by the DPMP, provides a set of principles for alcohol and other drug treatment in Australia and sets the groundwork for system improvements across Australia. We engaged more than 250 stakeholders in the development of this national framework. Our work with the Northern Territory government revealed that while the numbers of people being treated for alcohol problems may be about right, the intensity and the level of care is not configured in a way that might best meet the needs of people experiencing these problems. In Queensland, we are developing a tool to assist with planning alcohol and drug treatment: including identifying the clinical workforce, the numbers of beds, and the resources required to meet the needs of Queenslanders experiencing alcohol and other drug problems. Our comprehensive evaluation of the NSW Involuntary Drug and Alcohol Treatment program has provided valuable insights to the NSW government, on what is sometimes seen as a controversial policy, but as provided in Australia is reserved only for people who are at immediate risk of harm to themselves or others. Our research with a Primary Health Network analysed barriers and enablers to supporting GPs and primary health care practitioners to better respond to people experiencing alcohol and other drug problems. The work has surfaced recommendations to improve the linkages between different supports and services, develop innovative models of care, and to address gaps in policy, guidelines and training.

    While academic and traditional “investigator-driven” research plays a vital role in generating new evidence, working alongside government in collaborative partnerships to shape and inform policy developments is a mainstay of the DPMP. Governments across Australia are committed to better policy – informed by evidence, and responsive to those experiencing alcohol and drug-related harms. We have been privileged to work alongside government in achieving policy improvements.

  • Disability policy inclusive research

    SPRC’s biggest change I have seen over the last decades has been employing people with disability and mental health as researchers in our project teams. Their participation has influenced the way we do our research, what we focus on and how we use the findings. Most fun is seeing how an extensive report and academic article is changed into an accessible video and easy read document. Honestly, it is the accessible version that we all use in the end, especially when we are explaining the impact of the research to the media and politicians.

    Accessible Reports

    Improving the Lives of People with Disability and Mental Health Conditions

  • A research field I devoted most of my career to is a series of research on urbanisation and social policy in China. It was a result of a trip back to China. The helper my mother hired to prepare the welcoming dinner for me did not show up. It turned out that her son was arrested by the police because he did not have a work permit. I decided to fix China’s social exclusion problem in urbanisation.

    This led to a series of projects on social exclusion, housing and pension policies. Then I realised that I was contributing to the development of a new social welfare system for a country that is experiencing the largest urbanisation in human history. To this day, this massive urbanisation still generates endless questions and challenges.

  • In my short time with the CSRH and SPRC, it has been wonderful to have convened and to lead the Vitalities Lab. We are a small but vibrant team who enjoy working together, making connections inside and outside UNSW and pushing social research in new and exciting directions. Whether it is studying how COVID messages are conveyed on TikTok, how people are using digital techologies while in lockdown or the face mask as a social and symbolic artefact, we are working to understand the complexities of the post-COVID world. 

  • Happy Birthday SPRC!

    I first started at SPRC in 2007 at the ripe old age of 21 as an Indigenous intern and casual research assistant. I was halfway through my social work/arts degree and hadn’t really considered research as a career path. I will never forget the first big project that I worked on. We were commissioned by Centrelink to review more than 2000 written submissions from parents/carers who received the carer allowance and/or carer payment for children with disability. Most of these families were under huge financial stress from their caring requirements, and the very small financial assistance from the government was inadequate to meet their needs. Following our report, the carer payment was increased. This small example demonstrated to me, the power of social policy research to create very meaningful change to families and society more broadly. I’ve never looked back. 

  • Research with Children and Young People

    In 2007, a team of prominent poverty researchers Peter Saunders, Bettina Cass and Gerry Redmond from the Social Policy Research Centre (SPRC) were awarded an ARC Linkage grant to conduct the Making a Difference Study – an exploratory study about young Australians’ experiences of poverty. This landmark study was based on the premise that understanding young people’s access to resources and their spheres of inclusion required more complex data than that offered by household income measures. This significant move in poverty studies conceptually and politically dovetailed with an ARC Linkage grant led by Bettina Cass and Deborah Brennan on young carers. This project built on a tradition in studies in ‘Care’ that illuminated the lived experience of carers that had been hitherto invisible. The Young Carers project provided evidence on the young people’s pathways into care provision and the impact of caring on their health and social and economic participation. These two linkage projects spearheaded a move into child-centred research on poverty, care and income distribution at SPRC.

    Since this time, children and young people have contributed their stories about the issues that concern them to many SPRC studies. A range of child-friendly methodologies have been used. For example, exploratory studies like the Making a Difference Project drew on semi-structured interviews, photo and walking methodologies. The Australian Child Wellbeing Project was designed around cartooning and arts workshops that piloted concepts and language about poverty, exclusion, and family strengths. Findings from this phase of the research then informed the development of a survey that specifically resonated with children experiencing disadvantages and rolled out to a representative sample (n=5440). The success of this design was evident in high completion rates of the survey among both mainstream and disadvantaged cohorts – four in five respondents had no missing data,  The Deprivation and Exclusion among Young People Project involved conducting focus groups with young people to explore the items and activities that young people thought were important to live a ‘normal kind of life’. The focus groups informed a larger survey of young people in NSW. Other projects are taking a biographical approach to explore Young People’s stories of resourcing and resourcefulness. There are now ARC funded projects using secondary quantitative and qualitative data, and those that embed child-centered design into evaluation research such as the Evaluation of the Youth Housing and Reintegration Scheme funded by the QLD government. Researchers at SPRC are collaborating with lead researchers at the Centre for Social Research in Health (CSRH) working on related issues with similar methodologies.

    Throughout this period, the SPRC has worked on the social impact of the research, tailoring analysis and presentations to the needs of partner organisations including government agencies and non-government organisations. We have seen some organisations move to place-based initiatives and funding scholarships so that young people can participate in universally available extra-curricular activities. The Departments of Education have used our work to inform their own wellbeing surveys and initiatives. In 2011–2014, SPRC lead an ARC-funded cooperative research network with the Centre for Children and Young People at Southern Cross University. We have delivered a methods course on research with children and young people to leaders in Chinese government and non-government organisations in both Sydney and at Renmin University, China. During COVID-19, we have worked with our partner organisations to learn about the effects that this is having on the lives of the most disadvantaged children and young people and contributed to expert panels about the effects that lockdown and remote learning is having on their lives.

    Importantly, much of this work was designed with and supported by partner organisations including the Smith Family, Mission Australia, Uniting, the NSW Commission for Children and Young People, the Ted Noffs Foundation, Youth Support and Advocacy Service and various Commonwealth and State Departments of Education, Health, Community Services and Justice. The engagement of these organisations highlights the growing importance of listening to children and young people in Australian society and how policy can benefit from their active contribution. While we have a long way to go to ensure justice for all young Australians, it is uplifting that these organisations are committed to research that places young people’s voices at the heart of their work.

  • Some of the most important work I have done at the SPRC was with Peter Saunders when we contributed to the first census of China's orphans. This led to a significant improvement in the living standards of half a million vulnerable children.

    The census that we organised found that 500,000 children, many of them in rural areas, were receiving little or no social assistance. A second phase of research calculated the cost of raising these orphans. Based on the findings, in 2006 China's President Hu Jintao approved the establishment of a new social support system for orphans. Today, under the auspices of the new Department of Child Welfare, all orphans receive financial support for basic needs such as food, clothing, health care and education.

    Our research provided strong evidence that helped raise government and public awareness.

    To me, that is what the SPRC is all about – research that informs policy, and changes lives, for the better. That’s what makes an enlightened and truly civil society.

  • CSRH and SPRC have long histories of community engagement and making research findings accessible. In the current climate there’s so much uncertainty and the public is looking for advice. There’s a lot of misinformation and contradictory information, but a great way for researchers to respond to this environment is to contribute clear, informed and accessible advice. Encouraged by the great work already being done by researchers in CSRH and SPRC, I wrote an article for The Conversation about the public shaming of “super-spreaders” that now has over 20,000 reads. I feel proud of this contribution and proud to be a part of CRSH and SPRC, continuing this history of outreach.

Reflections from our students

  • I wanted to study at SPRC because I learnt that SPRC is dedicated to social impacts through a practical policy method with an international outlook. Studying at SPRC has meant that I have the opportunity to develop critical and practical thinking and apply it in the policy context. I’m hoping to use my PhD from SPRC to contribute to the development and integration of the multicultural communities in Australia.  

  • Studying at SPRC has meant that I'm learning from some of the best analytical minds and creative thinkers in policy research. I love being part of a Centre that participates so effectively in critical debates about the most important social policy and social justice issues facing contemporary governments.

  • I was drawn to SPRC because of the rigour and impact of their research. The biggest driver for me in undertaking my PhD was to have the reassurance that it would matter; that it would make a difference. I knew under the co-supervision of SPRC and CSI that my work would contribute to meaningful improvement for military families in Australia.

Social Policy Research Centre's Acknowledgement

UNSW Sydney’s Kensington campus is built on the land of the Aboriginal people. We pay our respects to the Bedegal people of the Eora nation who are the Custodians of this land. 

We acknowledge the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, the First Australians, whose lands, winds and waters we all now share, and pay respect to their unique values, and their continuing and enduring cultures which deepen and enrich the life of our nation and communities.