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Thousands of striking students march down the streets of Montreal as they demonstrate against tuition hikes Thursday, March 22, 2012.Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press

The protests against Quebec's university tuition increases in Montreal this week may feel like a rite of passage to many students. But the cause, while fashionable, is a lost one. Premier Jean Charest is right not to be swayed by the placard-waving, drum-beating throng of 200,000.

The proposal to add $325 a year to tuition every year for five years is reasonable. Quebec's tuition fees, which would reach $3,800 a year by 2016, will still be among the lowest in Canada.

For years, the threat of student unrest has kept Quebec political leaders from dealing with the issue of tuition fees, which have remained frozen in 33 of the past 43 years.

But taxpayers cannot continue to fill the gap. After all, who will carry the weight of the accumulated debt if not future taxpayers – the students themselves, and their children. Is this a reasonable ask? No.

The students argue that the tuition freeze is a distinct achievement in a distinct society. And yet it has not necessarily resulted in higher enrolment rates in Quebec. Ontario, which has the highest tuition rates in the country, also has more university graduates. To fund universities properly, middle-class students and their families have to pay their fair share.

As Mr. Charest pointed out this week, even after the hikes, first announced last March, Quebec students will still end up paying only 17 per cent of the cost of their education.

Thirty per cent of the net revenue from Quebec's tuition increases will go to student bursaries and aid, ensuring that university studies will still be accessible to poor families.

The Premier is right to stand his ground, even in the face of grandiose plans for future protests on March 27 in Montreal and April 4, in Mr. Charest's own riding of Sherbrooke.

Polls show that Quebeckers are divided. This is an improvement from years past, when the students' conceit remained unchallenged. Mr. Charest is right to fight for a "world-class" post-secondary education system. It won't happen if tuition remains frozen for another 33 years.