Thousands of Quebec's university students have been protesting for the past three months. Why? Apparently, because of the government's plans for a $1,625 rise in tuition over five years, which will result in annual tuition of about $3,800 by 2017. In other words, at the far end of these increases, Quebec students will still be paying less for their education than their peers elsewhere in Canada, and far less than most American college students.

On the basis of these numbers alone, it's hard to sympathize with the students' putative plight, let alone condone the protracted, frequently violent protests that it has provoked. The protests have included the smoke-bombing of Montreal's subway system, expressway shutdowns, and attacks on government buildings. They have led to campus shutdowns, suspended semesters at many of the province's colleges and universities, and the resignation of Quebec's education minister. Some supporters of the students invoke the social-protest movements of the late 1960s to suggest their radical bravery, while critics disparage them as enfants roi, or child kings—monstrously entitled brats.

But perhaps this is something more than a romanticized rush to the barricades or a collective temper tantrum. Perhaps the situation in Quebec, like the recent protest-driven votes for outsider parties in European elections and the rise of the Occupy movement in the United States, actually exposes, in the context of higher education, a profound crisis of faith in the socioeconomic frameworks that have structured and advanced societies across North America and Europe since World War II. These recent events register, in their various local situations, a rejection of the premise of the postwar liberal state: that large-scale institutions and elected leaders are capable of creating opportunities for individual citizens to flourish.

In other words, Quebec's students aren't simply protesting tuition hikes meant to cover the expected gap between future public revenues and government funds for higher education. They're protesting their looming entry, through the traditional pathway of postsecondary education, into a broader social system—both locally and internationally—whose capacities, as we're reminded daily, are being undermined by enormous government debts, intractable political divisions, flagging national economies, and widespread unemployment and underemployment, particularly for young people.

And if the very socioeconomic structures, institutions, leaders, and policies that purport to solve these overwhelming problems seem instead effectively responsible for exacerbating them, why would students want to join this system, never mind pay a few hundred bucks more per year for the privilege?

The time has come for us to admit that what has worked for so many, for so long, very likely won't work for many more, for much longer. This is nowhere more apparent than at colleges and universities. These were the postwar liberal state's most effective institutions for the intellectual formation and professional preparation of young people to enter what was, for decades, a consistently expanding work force that offered new graduates opportunities that were reliably equal to, if not higher than, what equivalent graduates enjoyed in preceding generations. How many of us in higher education today are willing to promise the same to the majority of our current students considering any number of professions?

Instead of only despairing about this situation, or narcissistically focusing on preserving the pathways and trajectories that will enable elite students to assume intact elite positions—in higher education, government, law, finance, medicine, and the like—we should strive to make higher education newly promising and purposeful for the majority of young people facing a troubled new age. Such change begins, I propose, with individual faculty members and senior administrators alike admitting that what has worked for most of us and the members of our graduating classes will not work for most of our students and their graduating classes.

Promising evidence of such admissions can already be found in, for instance, the proposed reconceptualization of humanities graduate programs at Stanford, Harvard, and the University of Minnesota, along lines that would require students to complete their studies on strict, shortened timelines while being educationally prepared to pursue nonacademic careers. Meanwhile, New York University and my home institution, Ryerson University, have recently created physical and digital "hubs" to encourage entrepreneurial and technological innovations and collaborations among students, between students and faculty, and between members of the university and the public.

These hubs aren't intended to replace traditional programs of study—a standard worry and criticism raised by faculty committed to increasingly outmoded notions of university education. Instead they provide adjacent venues for students to apply their continued learning in ways that can become viable research and business opportunities with influence and effect beyond the campus.

The Ryerson and NYU initiatives offer fresh, agile lines of potential continuity between university educations and postgraduate careers that, like the new approaches to graduate programming at Stanford and elsewhere, won't necessarily revitalize all of higher education. But they do suggest that conceptual and structural changes in higher education can be both possible and promising, provided that those with the position and capacity to effect these changes can persuade enough of their colleagues and peers to search for new ways to maintain universities as anchor institutions in an otherwise faltering liberal state.

Quebec's striking students, like Europe's protest-minded electorates and the members of the Occupy movement, have identified and often already experienced this failing situation, but their responses have been limited largely to expressing their anger and frustration, rather than to articulating plausible alternatives. This has enabled those already in secure positions—in government, higher education, media, business, and industry—to rest safely in criticizing the protesters' often outrageous, frequently extremist decisions and actions, instead of acknowledging that they might have a point. The protesters make it poorly, sometimes very poorly, but they do have a point.

It's now up to us all to pursue the conceptual and structural changes necessary to restore broad faith in universities, colleges, and other leading institutions of our increasingly threatened social systems before the liberal state's rising new rejectionists—whether it's Quebec's striking student population, European fringe-party supporters, or the Occupy movement—threaten it any further than they already have.

Randy Boyagoda, a novelist and a professor of American studies, was recently appointed chair of the English department at Ryerson University, in Toronto.