The standard European retort is that if people have to pay for higher education, it will become the monopoly of the rich. But spending on higher education in Europe is highly regressive （more middle-class students go to university than working-class ones）. And higher education is hardly a monopoly of the rich in America: a third of undergraduates come from racial minorities, and about a quarter come from families with incomes below the poverty line. The government certainly has a responsibility to help students to borrow against their future incomes. But student fees offer the best chance of pumping more resources into higher education. They also offer the best chance of combining equity with excellence.
Europe still boasts some of the world's best universities, and there are some signs that policymakers have realised that their system is failing. Britain, the pacemaker in university reform in Europe, is raising fees. The Germans are trying to create a Teutonic Ivy League. European universities are aggressively wooing foreign students. Pan-European plans are encouraging student mobility and forcing the more eccentric European countries （notably Germany） to reform their degree structures. But the reforms have been too tentative.
America is not the only competition Europe faces in the knowledge economy. Emerging countries have cottoned on to the idea of working smarter as well as harder. Singapore is determined to turn itself into a “knowledge island”. India is sprucing up its institutes of technology. In the past decade China has doubled the size of its student population while pouring vast resources into elite universities. Forget about catching up with America; unless Europeans reform their universities, they will soon be left in the dust by Asia as well.