The government has asked us all to talk about what we want from our education system in the coming three decades. And the Education Conversation so far seems to be focused on a very simple idea – let’s get back to basics. Let’s make sure that learning is at the heart of all we do.

The government’s decision to remove harmful national standards and refocussing primary education on learning once more, have been welcomed by us at the Tertiary Education Union (TEU).

We are also pleased to see work get underway to review the National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA) so we can ensure secondary students can focus not on passing or gaming assessments, but on genuine learning.

And it was great to see in the Budget a commitment to put money back into support services and special needs education so all children, no matter their ability, are able to learn.

Helping the government to get the compulsory sector back to basics should just be the start though.

We also urgently need to turn attention in our tertiary education sector so we can get it back to its foundation – teaching and learning.

For two decades now successive governments have placed expectations on our tertiary education institutions that have made them act like businesses, often at the cost of education.

There have been government set performance targets; demands for greater ‘efficiency’; and a drive for the institutions and the sector as a whole to increase ‘market share’.

Repeated stories in the media show the crisis this corporate approach to public education has caused.

The results of the business-model were clear in the State Services Commission report on senior salaries in the public sector which showed that most tertiary education chief executives and vice-chancellors are paid more than the Prime Minister.

There are also the reports on our largest polytechnic, Unitec, posting a $31 million loss, which has been in part due to a failed outsourcing project.

There is the wastage that comes from ‘engagement’ activities to market ‘the business’ you run. Take for example the University of Auckland senior leadership having $33,000 worth of memberships to an exclusive ‘business’ club, so they can schmooze and tout for ‘business’.

There is the TEU state of the sector survey last year that showed a huge amount of pressure on staff to reach arbitrary targets on student achievement. In practice, this means pressuring staff to pass students who have not really demonstrated their learning in a course.

We see the harm done in demands by senior leaders for staff be loyal to an institutions ‘brand’ even if this means abandoning their responsibility to engage in public debate about the state of their own institutions. This was seen last week at the University of Auckland wanting confidentiality about major changes to the staffing of education and languages teaching.

And there are the repeated tales of the exploitation of international students who pay full-fees to study in New Zealand and whom are seen as a ‘market’ for revenue for our tertiary education institutions and little more.

All of these ills can be traced to one thing, the drive to make education institutions like businesses.

If we want a strong, dynamic, and inclusive education system in New Zealand, one that helps everyone learn to the best of their capabilities and focusses on enabling us to take on the big challenges of our world, it is time to discard notions of education as a business and return to the basics.

Education is about learning, no matter whether you are in an early childhood centre or a lecture theatre; a primary school maths class or a tutorial teaching you to apply your skills in real time.

Here’s to an education conversation that gets us all – teachers, pupils, parents, employers, polytechnic and wānanga chief executives, and vice-chancellors – focussed on learning.