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Students protested in downtown Montreal Friday against a five-year tuition hike they say will limit accessibility to post-secondary education. ((Canadian Press))

Students in Quebec are warning the provincial government that its plan to raise university tuition fees by 75 per cent will result in crippling debt levels and a showdown with their powerful unions.

A small but boisterous group of students took to the streets on Friday to express their anger at the government's intention to hike annual tuition by $325 a year for five years.

The measure is among the most controversial in the provincial budget  tabled Thursday by Finance Minister Raymond Bachand. 

Militant student unions in the province have long resisted any effort to increase tuition, which is the lowest in Canada.

"In Quebec we want the best universities, the best students, and money shouldn't be an issue," said Leo Bureau-Blouin, who heads the The Quebec Federation of University Students (FECQ).

Bureau-Blouin said student leaders plan to meet over the weekend to plan larger protests in the coming weeks.

The province's student unions have shown their ability to rally large crowds in the past; 50,000 people attended a protest in Montreal the weekend before the budget.

Students should pay 'fair share' says minister

Friday's protest snarled traffic outside a Montreal hotel where Bachand was defending his budget.

At one point they even managed to block the mayor of Montreal's car, forcing him to make his way to the speech on foot.

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Bachand says students should pay their fair share of actual tuition costs. ((Canadian Press))

Inside, Bachand expressed little sympathy for the students' concerns. 

"What's the fair share that students should pay?" Bachand asked reporters after his speech.

"He [the student] is going to earn hundreds of thousands of dollars more than if he had a high-school education."

Students argue the new tuition rate will limit access to higher education, something which Bachand rejects out of hand.

He says 35 per cent of the revenues generated by the higher rate will be put back in to student aid. The rest will help finance an ambitious array of funding programs for Quebec's universities.

Among them is a plan to encourage private companies to donate more to post-secondary education. In all, cash-strapped universities will see $850 million in additional public funds by 2016-17.

"The competition for brains in this planet is quite high," said Bachand. "If we don't start working on our universities now, it will be too late."

Students say hikes mean more debt, longer programs

The Canadian Federation of Students accused the Quebec government of seeking to balance its books on "the backs of students."  

David Molenhuis, the federation's chairperson, said the government's move will "bankrupt a generation and undermine Quebec's long-term economic stability."

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Tuition fees in Quebec have been frozen for 33 of the past 43 years. ((Canadian Press))

Students are worried the higher tuition fees for Quebecers will further complicate efforts to fund their education.

Concordia student Sandra Besada expects it will take longer to finish her degree.

"I'm going to have to be working more to save up more to be able to pay my school. So probably take less classes," she said.

Civil engineering student Andrew Samuel is doubtful the additional money will improve the quality of education, given how much Concordia has been spending on severance packages lately.

"We have classrooms falling apart and stuff. I don't see the money that they promised necessarily going in the school," he said.

"I'll have to talk to my boss and work more hours," said Marc-Andre Marquis, a political science student at the Université du Québec à Montreal who works part-time at a pet store.

"But under the financial aid system, if I work more, I'll receive fewer bursaries."

One study conducted by a prominent Quebec student union found that as many as 40 per cent of students in the province fund their education without support from their parents and that 80 per cent work while studying full time.

Universities wanted more

While many students say the tuition hikes will put an unfair burden on them, University of Montreal rector Guy Breton said rates in the end will be more fair.

He said tuition in Quebec has been kept artificially low for decades and universities have suffered.

'The government has been quite timid in the steps that it has taken with respect to tuition.' —Heather Monroe-Blum, McGill principal

"I think [for] the students, it's a religion for them. Any increase is wrong. In 2016-17, so half a century after the freeze or quasi freeze, we'll get back to that point. I think it has been enough," said Breton.

McGill University principal Heather Monroe-Blum had hoped the province would increase tuition by an even greater degree, such as $500 a year.

"The government has been quite timid in the steps that it has taken with respect to tuition. This will leave Quebec's universities still dramatically underfunded vis-à-vis their Canadian counterparts," said Munroe-Blum.

With files from the Canadian Press