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Any society would be in big trouble if its students, out of fear or complacency, did not protest. Challenging the existing order is a rite of adulthood and an initiation into democracy. Social change often starts on campuses, those righteous repositories of the social conscience of a nation.

That's why how Quebec's college and university students react to Philippe Couillard's mission to put his province on a sounder fiscal footing could well determine whether the Liberal Premier reaches his goal or ends up, like others before him, backing down in the face of protest.

It's not for nothing that the building that houses the Quebec premier's office is known as "the bunker." Occupants are often forced to take cover from the mob within its thick concrete walls.

In 2012, premier Jean Charest announced a plan to increase undergraduate university tuition by $1,625 over five years. That would have brought annual fees to about $3,800 – still far below the Canadian average. Students unleashed a tsunami of protest that came to be known as the Maple Spring. Mr. Charest lost the 2012 election. His successor cancelled the fee hike.

Parti Québécois premier Pauline Marois, who banged on pots with the students as opposition leader, ended up indexing tuition by a modest 3 per cent a year. For the current academic year, average undergraduate tuition in Quebec stands at about $2,750 – less than half of the Canadian average of about $6,000 and barely a third of the $7,500 Ontario schools charge.

Three years after the Maple Spring, student leaders still push for Quebec to imitate France by eliminating tuition fees altogether. But that objective has been subsumed into a more sweeping, if vague, agenda. About 40,000 junior college and university students are now in the final week of a two-week strike to protest "austerity" and "hydrocarbons."

The absence of any specific demands makes the walkout look like an excuse to skip classes. So far, there is no public sympathy for the striking students, who have been roundly ridiculed for their lack of focus. Some students have pushed back against their leaders, arguing that recent strike votes were illegal and voting rules manipulated to ensure the outcome sought by the leadership.

The province's main university and college student federations have yet to climb on board. Instead, the strike is being teleguided by the Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante (ASSÉ, a play on the French word for "enough"). But its current spokesperson, Camille Godbout, lacks the charisma of Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, the 2012 ASSÉ leader who rose to star status during the Maple Spring.

Indeed, the current strike appeared destined to fizzle until last week, when Mr. Couillard tabled Quebec's first balanced budget in six years, vowing to hold increases in education spending to a stingy 0.2 per cent in the fiscal year that begins April 1. Spending on health care is to rise a mere 1.4 per cent. In real terms, that means substantial cuts in both health and education programs, which typically have built-in cost increases of as much as 5 per cent annually.

The budget is mum on tuition fees. Mr. Couillard has steered clear of the issue, other than announcing last month that students from France will soon pay the same fees as those from other Canadian provinces, instead of the much lower in-province rate. But without additional money this year, the province is implicitly forcing university administrators to make unpopular choices.

Mr. Couillard has suddenly handed student leaders an issue more apt to mobilize the masses on campus. Strike votes are still pending for the vast majority of college and university students in the province and last week's budget will crystallize for many the true meaning of austerity. Public sector workers, whose contracts expire March 31, could soon join the students.

Education Minister François Blais, a former university dean, has warned that, unlike in 2012, the government will not provide extra money to fund makeup classes for students on strike. He's counting on the silent majority on campus to rein in the anarchist fringe behind the strikes.

The Premier, meanwhile, has been steadfast. At more than 50 per cent of gross domestic product, Quebec's net debt (which today's students will inherit) is approaching the danger zone. There can be no turning back, Mr. Couillard insists, as he cuts the ratio to 43 per cent by 2020.

Then again, he wouldn't be the first to say that and head for the bunker.

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