Quebec's cheap tuition — by far the lowest in Canada — is being challenged by the Charest government which plans to increase fees considerably over the next several years.
Students waving signs, chanting and blasting horns, filled the streets of Montreal as part of a massive but largely peaceful provincewide protest against those planned hikes.
"(Premier Jean) Charest paid $500 for university; who's he to tell me to pay my fair share?" read one of the more memorable protest signs.
"We made a choice as a society 40 years ago to preserve accessibility for all students and we want to preserve that," said Martine Desjardins, a student leader from the Universite de Montreal.
More than 200,000 college and university students voted in favour of boycotting classes and some later blocked access at Montreal institutions early Thursday. There were reports that others who wanted to go to class were prevented from entering.
Some protesters wore red scarves, red paint on their faces and bits of red tissue on their jackets — to illustrate their case that students would be left, "in the red."
Busloads of students came from across the province, snaking through downtown under the watchful eye of police and under a steady drizzle that did little to dampen spirits.
The students marched on the premier's downtown offices.
The protests were peaceful, although police intervened when some people tossed projectiles like fireworks and paint bombs at the premier's office tower. Montreal police say they made four arrests.
Student groups say the hikes, announced during the last provincial budget, amount to a declaration of war from the provincial government.
But the provincial government, which recently stood firm in a similar skirmish with unions, appears to be digging in its heels again.
Charest has said he will not back down on the higher fees, which will increase by $325 per year from now until 2016.
That will bring annual tuition to $3,793, significantly more than the current average of about $2,168. Charest notes that, even with the increase, Quebec students would still pay by far the lowest fees in Canada.
As it stands, Quebec fees are a fraction of the Canadian average of $5,138, according to Statistics Canada.
How the changes might affect international and out-of-province students remains unclear. The government has said it plans to review their tuition as well. Those students are already charged significantly more for studying in Quebec, compared to students from the province.
A spokesman for the government said no decision has yet been made on non-Quebec students' fees.
For in-province students, Quebec's tuition fees have been frozen for most of the last 40 years. The Charest government is now adamant that universities need more money.
An association representing the heads of Quebec post-secondary institutions says the extra money is absolutely necessary and the province is falling behind the rest of Canada.
"When we compare the financing of Quebec universities to the rest of Canada, there is a $600 million shortfall," said Daniel Zizian, director general of The Conference of Rectors and Principals of Quebec Universities.
"We can't think that Quebec universities can continue to offer a quality education in the long term with a $600 million shortfall year after year."
But student protesters reject the comparison.
They say that, while tuition fees are certainly higher in English Canada, they prefer to look to some prosperous European nations with little or no tuition at all.
They note that the government spends relatively little on financing universities — about $3 billion per year in Quebec, which is a slim fraction of spending on other priorities like health care and transport. The students say the government could easily afford a tuition freeze, if it rearranged its priorities.
Debate on the issue raged at the Quebec legislature Thursday. The government was adamantly sticking to its plan.
The government cast the current system as unfair to poorer Quebecers who subsidize the education of wealthier residents.
"A majority of Quebec taxpayers don't have a university degree and will never earn the salary of a university-educated person — but they finance the majority of the system," Education Minister Line Beauchamp said during question period.
Beauchamp said those who complete university degrees are likely to earn between $600,000 to $750,000 more than their non-university counterparts: "So shouldn't university students do their part?" she added.
The opposition Parti Quebecois has argued the swift hikes put too heavy a burden on today's students.
"There are thousands of students who don't have access to loans and bursaries," said PQ education critic Marie Malavoy. "They're not poor enough to qualify and not rich enough to afford an education — they are in the streets today."
Desjardins said a general student strike remains a possibility, but it would be up to members to decide. Further protests are likely as students have until March to convince Charest to relent.
"Students are already in a lot of debt — 65 per cent of them end up leaving with a degree at age 22 and are already $14,000 in debt," said Desjardins.
"So we want to protect what we have now, that's why we're here."
The majority of students were on strike on Thursday only, although some associations in Quebec have activities planned for Friday as well.