Are Quebec student protesters spoiled brats or social justice fighters?

A lot of Canadians outside Quebec are bemused by the long-running, sometimes violent confrontation between the provincial government and post-secondary students over tuition fees.

The three-month fight over a plan to raise fees by about $325 a year for five years has been marked by regular demonstrations in Montreal, vandalism and clashes with police. Attempts at negotiating a solution have floundered.

Opinion outside Quebec (and inside, too, though probably much more nuanced) seems to boil down to two perspectives: The protesters are spoiled brats who don't know how good they've got it compared with students elsewhere; or the protests are about more than tuition, an attempt to counter the growing economic divide between generations and protect access to Quebec's education system.

"It's a little hard for the rest of us to muster sympathy for Quebec's downtrodden students, who pay the lowest tuition fees in all of North America," Globe and Mail editorial columnist Margarete Wente wrote Tuesday.

Even if the tuition increases stand, Quebec students will still pay the least on the continent for a post-secondary education, she said.

"The total increase would amount to the cost of a daily grande cappuccino," Wente wrote.

She acknowledged others see the dispute in broader social justice terms and about a decades-old promise that university education would someday be free.

"Of course, since universities actually do cost money, somebody will have to pay. Who? The greedy corporations!"

Wente quoted Montreal political scientist Pierre Martin, who observed Quebec university students rarely consider going outside the province for their education.

"Now I get it," said Wente. "The kids are on another planet."

The protesters are not coming from the ranks of accounting, science and engineering students, who are still attending class, she wrote.

The Canadian Press reported this week roughly two-thirds of students have not joined the strike.

The protesters come from programs such as sociology, anthropology and philosophy, "whose degrees are increasingly worthless in a world that increasingly demands hard skills ..." Wente contended.

"They're the baristas of tomorrow and they don't even know it because the adults in their lives have sheltered them and encouraged a mass flight from reality."

Erika Shaker, writing on, challenged Wente's reasoning.

The tuition increases amount to 75 per cent over five years or 82 per cent over seven years, based on a compromise tabled before talks broke down, Shaker wrote. Tuition would jump above those in Newfoundland and Labrador, as well as Manitoba, leaving them slightly below the national average.

"But hey -- why bother with math when you can sit back and just make your point with a cappuccino reference?" Shaker wrote.

Low fees and free access to the unique CEGEP system give Quebec the highest post-secondary education participation rate in the country, she argued, all without a massive student-loan debt to burden them as they hit the job market.

Shaker slammed the Globe columnist for a simplistic view of Quebec's system, which offers a variety of educational choices that affect participation stats.

Commentators are ignoring the substance of the protesters' arguments, she wrote, "preferring instead to pontificate about why kids today should stop complaining, accept the world that's being left for them to make do with... and hey! get off my damn lawn."

But over on the Globe's business pages, columnist Rob Carrick urged parents to "talk to your kids before you dismiss those Quebec student demonstrators as a bunch of spoiled malcontents.

"Even if they're not on their way into the streets to protest rising university tuitions, young adults have some legitimate grievances about the growing financial divide between them and the older generation."

With more baby boomers expected to work past age 65, there are fewer job opportunities for grads, little in the way of affordable housing and an erosion of social programs such as Old Age Security and health care, Carrick wrote Wednesday. Young people everywhere are becoming marginalized.

"The Quebec demonstrations can't be dismissed as simply an example of the province's strong tradition of social activism, and neither are they the actions of selfish youths who aren't satisfied with the lowest post-secondary tuitions in North America," Carrick wrote.

"What's going on in the province is a fight by twentysomethings to be heard by governments that seem to have little interest in them."

The protests haven't spilled outside Quebec because students elsewhere have become used to regular tuition hikes and the prospect of a hefty debt when they graduate, Carrick was told by Zach Dayler of the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations.

That doesn't mean they're not mad, Dayler said.

"Just ask most young people what they think of their political representatives."