Quebec students are marching in the streets as part of a massive protest against tuition-fee hikes in the province.
As many as 200,000 college and university students voted in favour of boycotting classes and have garnered support from social activist organizations and unions.
Some students blocked access at Montreal institutions early Thursday, with reports that others who wanted to go to class were prevented from entering.
Thousands are expected for an afternoon march on Premier Jean Charest's downtown offices.
Student groups have said the hikes amount to a declaration of war from the provincial government. Student groups say raising tuition fees will impact access to higher education.
“This mobilization sends a clear message to the government that students will not accept higher tuition fees and will do everything in their power to overturn this decision,” march organizers said in a statement.
But the provincial government, which recently stood firm in a similar skirmish with unions, appears to be digging in its heels again.
Mr. Charest said he won't 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. Mr. Charest says that, even with the increase, Quebec students would still pay the lowest fees in Canada.
Quebec's tuition fees have been frozen for most of the last 40 years and the Charest government is adamant that universities need the 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.”
Debate on the issue raged at the Quebec legislature Thursday. The government was adamantly sticking to its plan.
“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.
Ms. Beauchamp said those who complete university degrees are likely to earn 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.”
The majority of students are on strike on Thursday, although some associations in Quebec have activities planned for Friday as well.