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Montreal police officers stand guard outside the higher education summit in Montreal on Monday, Feb. 25.

Graham Hughes/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Quebec Premier Pauline Marois is reaping what she sowed on the issue of university and college tuition increases. Having supported a student boycott of classes while in opposition over a reasonable hike to the country's lowest tuition fees, she is now running up against a student leadership that will not be easily appeased. Thousands of protesting students filled downtown Montreal on Tuesday.

Ms. Marois's announcement of a 3-per-cent annual cost-of-living increase in tuition fees is an implicit acknowledgement that the universities need more money, and that the students need to contribute a greater share. Right now, they pay an average of $2,274 a year for an undergraduate degree, while Canadian students as a whole pay on average $5,581 (not including ancillary fees). The increase means an extra $65 a year for Quebec students, and breaks her campaign promise of a tuition freeze. (Disingenuously, she still calls it a freeze because the increase is meant only to keep pace with inflation.)

In the inflammatory climate Ms. Marois helped foster, even a $65 increase demands all sorts of accompanying carrots to make it palatable – to the students because $65 is too much, and to the universities because it is too little. Thus, she is promising to hire 1,000 new professors, 2,000 contract instructors and 1,000 other staff over the next five years. Ms. Marois is also promising that her government will balance the provincial budget. And the universities say they have an $850-million funding shortfall. Nothing adds up.

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Quebec has a mess, and she made it worse. She irresponsibly fanned the flames beneath premier Jean Charest last year, knowing that Quebec has deep financial problems and high taxes and that the students were attempting a takeover of public policy by massing in the Montreal streets by the thousands on a nightly basis. Ironically, former separatist premier Jacques Parizeau is now doing something similar to her by urging her to consider zero tuition, the demand of the most radical student group.

Ms. Marois's desperate attempts this week to reach a "consensus" around a $65 annual increase that will put only $12-million into government coffers may set her government up, like Mr. Charest's before it, for an unproductive battle. And she helped set the terms of engagement.

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