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Last Friday, the contrast between Quebec students and their provincial government could not have been sharper: Outside, tear gas filled the streets as riot police scuffled with young protesters; inside, at a business lunch on his plan to develop Quebec's north, Premier Jean Charest joked that "we could offer them a job … in the North, as far as possible."

As Mr. Charest reaches his Marie Antoinette moment, there still seems to be some skepticism in the rest of Canada about what's taking place in this "Quebec Spring," some of it incredulity, much of it incomprehension. But like a lot of others things, the politics of higher education is different in Quebec.

Access to universities and colleges is an important legacy of the Quiet Revolution. The mid-sixties' Parent Report, which laid the basis for sweeping education reform in Quebec, recommended the abolition of university fees. While it didn't happen for universities, it did for the two-year colleges (CEGEP) that serve as prep courses for some, and as professional or vocational training for others.

The ensuing protests of 1968 reflected a radicalization of the student movement, with an emphasis on the role of higher education in breaking down barriers to socio-economic disparities and language status. The spirit behind the notion of free tuition – that higher education needed to be democratized and that money should not impede equal access – remained a powerful force for decades.

So, too, has the notion of the role of the state in ensuring a collective responsibility for social programs. And it's a trade-off: As Quebeckers shoulder a larger tax burden, university tuition fees have remained low – much lower than in the rest of Canada. According to the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, fees ranged from $2,400 in Quebec to $6,300 in Ontario in 2010. That gap used to be smaller; the real explosion hit in the 1990s, as provincial deficits rose and federal transfers declined, leading to a tightening of public spending in many areas, including postsecondary education.

In Quebec, university fees more than doubled in 1990 under Robert Bourassa's Liberal government. Under the Parti Québécois, the pressure to keep tuition fees low remained strong – including a student strike movement that led to a 10-year freeze as of 1996. But since the Liberals have been back in office, university financing and tuition fees have again become a lightning rod in a wider debate over the reform of public finances and the re-engineering of the Quebec state.

Tensions have simmered ever since, heightened by the 2011 budget, which announced an annual increase in tuition fees of $325 a year over five years. Student leaders warned they would fight the increases, leading to the class boycotts and mass demonstrations of the past several months, with thousands of university and college students seeing their entire semester compromised as a result.

This is where the Charest government has run head-on against another particularity of the politics of higher education. Even though Quebeckers have condemned the more aggressive aspects of the protest movement, the government's refusal to have a dialogue with student groups on tuition increases is seen by many as a dereliction of the spirit of social consensus and compromise, and as a disregard of students on the wider issue: the future of higher education in Quebec.

As the student boycott widened, the government's hands-off attitude did not dissipate the movement; instead, even more extremist elements emerged, leading to acts of violence and vandalism that Quebeckers are waking up to on a regular basis.

In allowing this unrest to fester, and in adding fuel to the fire through the perception of a "let them eat cake" attitude, Mr. Charest has added two costly political errors to his already precarious hold on power. First, he has allowed a legitimate political debate to turn into a crisis that endangers public order and safety. Second, he has closed the only window in the electoral calendar that could have carried some hope for his government.

A June election that seemed in the cards – before the PQ could rise any higher in the polls and before the commission on the construction industry begins its public hearings – is now unlikely. While public opinion in Quebec may be divided on the question of tuition fees, it may no longer be open to reconciling with Mr. Charest's leadership.

Antonia Maioni is an associate professor of political science at McGill University.

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