MONTREAL - Weeks of debate over Quebec's tuition hikes have been fraught with flag-waving, finger-pointing, chants about a "Maple Spring," campus turf wars between so-called "reds" and "greens," and no shortage of raucous protests.

Amid all that noise, the numbers have played a secondary role.

But what does the research say about tuition fees, and their relationship to access to education?

Some studies suggest the relationship is tenuous, with higher tuition fees unlikely to have the feared impact protest leaders warn of. Enrolment has, after all, grown even faster in some jurisdictions with higher fees than others like Quebec, with lower ones.

Skeptics suggest those studies should be taken with a grain of salt because they fail to take into account certain factors, like the fact that Quebec has a post-secondary CEGEP system.

Some of the statistics, however, are striking.

Lowest tuition has led to lower-than-average enrolment

Tuition has been mostly frozen in Quebec for 43 years, but there is little evidence this has increased university enrolment. Only about 30 per cent of Quebec's young people go to university -- six percentage points less than the national average, according to a study published by the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario.

Atlantic Canada has a 50 per cent enrolment rate -- even though average tuition fees there are roughly double that of Quebec's.

The study suggests the cost of tuition does not have a noticeable effect on university enrolment rates, but that the most important factor for enrolment rates is actually generational. Young people are more likely to go to university if their parents did, regardless of income.

Quebec's youth are less likely to have parents that went to university, and are therefore less likely to go themselves. Understanding the reasons behind this trend, however, "warrants further investigation," the study says.

However, a competing study claims to debunk the "myths" justifying the $1,625 hike. It says the enrolment numbers reported in other research have been skewed.

The study by the Institut de recherche et d'informations socio-economiques (IRIS) says that although university enrolment is low, Quebec actually has the highest rate in the country for college participation because of its unique CEGEP system -- and that post-secondary education rates are therefore on par with the rest of the country if CEGEPs are included.

One of the study's authors, Simon Tremblay-Pepin, told CTV in an interview this week that Quebecers attend CEGEP in such high numbers because of its comparatively low cost.

"In CEGEP we pay much less, so people are attracted to go to CEGEP, and to do their diplomas in (trades) and all other types of diplomas that are less expensive than in the rest of Canada," he said.

He also disagreed with the idea that the tuition hike won't affect university attendance.

"That's a bit strange for an argument," he said. "Normally, when your raise the price of a commodity, people buy less of it."

Protesters afraid of debt; government increases grants

Protesters also worry that student debt will rise for those who do choose to attend university. Currently, those Quebec students who graduate with debt (65 per cent of them) hold an average debt of around $15,000; the national average is almost $27,000.

Increasing this burden could cripple recent graduates, protesters say -- especially students from lower- to medium-income families, who are most likely to take out loans.

To combat such fears, the province has proposed changes in bursaries and grants which would make the actual cost of tuition for lower-income students even less than it is now.

Currently, to qualify for the lowest income bracket -- and therefore the highest bursaries and grants -- the student's family must earn $28,500 a year or less.

While the original reforms promised by the Charest government would see this ceiling rise to $35,000, the government last week proposed a compromise to student protesters and offered an even higher ceiling of $45,000.

Under the current system of grants and tax credits, a student from a family earning $45,000 is only eligible for less than $200 in grants per year, and would wind up paying about $1,270 in tuition fees.

Under the new plan, that same student would receive $2,311 per year -- easily eclipsing the amount of the tuition increase and even benefiting that student financially.

Free tuition benefits the rich

Luc Godbout, a Universite de Sherbrooke professor who teaches tax policy and public finance, has offered blunt criticism on his blog of the call for a tuition freeze.

"(It's) regressive," he wrote, "because it subsidizes students from rich families who attend university in greater proportion."

Godbout said the new grant system offered by the government is a good deal. He suggested people might not understand the numbers behind it.

"There are some debates where common sense cannot take over," he wrote.

"The tuition debate is clearly one of them."

For protesters, however, the improved grants-and-loans programs still miss the point of what they're fighting for -- a change in societal values. The tuition hikes are not needed at all, they say, and Quebec has the means to work towards free education.

"When you take a look at the rest of the world, we are a province that pays a lot in terms of tuition fees," said Tremblay-Pepin. "In fact, in Europe, 10 countries have ... free education, where there are no tuition fees."

"So it's totally possible. It would cost like $400 million to make free education -- it's not that much for the budget for the province of Quebec."

The last Quebec budget included $62.6 billion in program spending.