MONTREAL - Three men and one woman were arrested Thursday afternoon during a political protest that saw thousands of post-secondary students assemble to denounce tuition increases that they claim will make university education unaffordable for many. 

The largest rally got underway at 2 p.m. Thursday at Place Emilien Gamelin. The students began marching in the rain from Berri to Premier Charest's downtown office at 2:45 p.m.

Police proved unable to prevent protesting students from blocking Sherbrooke St. near McGill College Thursday afternoon.

The students danced and chanted slogans denouncing Liberal Premier Jean Charest. One chant translated as, "Charest you're a pig, we'll have your skin."

A loudspeaker blared a song by Quebecois rap group Loco Locass translated as, "Free us from the Liberals."

Students waving signs, chanting and blasting horns, filled the streets of Montreal as part of a massive but largely peaceful provincewide protest against those planned hikes.

"(Premier Jean) Charest paid $500 for university; who's he to tell me to pay my fair share?" read one of the more memorable protest signs.

"We made a choice as a society 40 years ago to preserve accessibility for all students and we want to preserve that," said Martine Desjardins, a student leader from the Universite de Montreal.

More than 200,000 college and university students voted in favour of boycotting classes and some later blocked access at Montreal institutions early Thursday. There were reports that others who wanted to go to class were prevented from entering.

Some protesters wore red scarves, red paint on their faces and bits of red tissue on their jackets -- to illustrate their case that students would be left, "in the red."

Busloads of students came from across the province, snaking through downtown under the watchful eye of police and under a steady drizzle that did little to dampen spirits.

Representatives from the rally said that it was one of the biggest student protests in provincial history. They estimated that the rally attracted 30,000 students.

The crowd began to disperse around 4:30 p.m. but the Montreal riot police remained present as some students remained and taunted the officers.

The protest attracted faculty staffers as well as students.

"Access to education is a right and therefore should not be reversed only for those who can pay," said Keena Gregoire, a faculty member of the Universite de Quebec a Montreal, one of many UQAM who professors back the student strikers.

The Parti Quebecois also opposes the hikes and some were in attendance at the protest Thursday.

Many others, some students included, support the increases. An association of Quebec deans and principals is among the supporters.

"We consider the fee hikes to be reasonable and we believe that they should be accompanied by increased student loans and bursaries," said CREPUQ President Daniel Zizian.

Premier Charest said Wednesday that he has no intention of backing down on the tuition hikes.

Over the past few weeks student councils have voted in favour of a walkout to show their anger over the fee hike.

Other groups have come out in support of the student strike and reduced tuition fees, including professors at UQAM.

The latest provincial budget introduced university tuition fee increases of $325 per year, starting with the 2012-2013 school year, and will continue until 2016.

The end result is that students who currently pay about $2,415 a year for tuition will eventually end up paying more than $4,000, plus university fees, for their education.

That will still be among the lowest tuition fees in the country, where the average nation-wide cost of tuition is $5,138 per year.

Fees frozen for decades

Tuition fees in Quebec have been frozen for 33 of the past 43 years, so Quebec's universities have welcomed the news of a tuition hike which will give them $850 million more in operating revenues over the next six years.

Many students say Quebecers should be proud to have the lowest tuition in the country.

"Education is such a valuable resource in today's job market," said Dawson College student Benjamin Audet. "The people who are in power now and making these laws benefited from this cheap access to education."

There have been multiple protests since the Charest government announced the measure last year, including at Liberal caucus meetings and outside cabinet ministerial offices, all to no effect.

In April a protest march through Montreal turned violent and ended with police using stun grenades and pepper spray to disperse the crowd.

With files from The Canadian Press