As liberal California Gov. Jerry Brown and liberal University of California President Janet Napolitano take opposite sides in the debate over state funding for the UC system, National Review Online columnist Kevin Williamson asks a question that has been notably absent from the debate.

How much could it actually cost to provide California students with a first-rate college education? The answer … is this: Nobody knows. If there is one thing that government institutions excel at, it is ensuring that they do not know that which they do not wish to know. (E.g., How prevalent is sex-selective abortion in the United States?) The bundle of things that the University of California system does is large and complex, and a great many of them — most of them, by some calculations — do not have anything directly to do with undergraduate education.

Katherine Hafner of UCLA’s Daily Bruin highlights the work of retired Berkeley professor Charles Schwartz, whose background in physics (I’m told that “Linear Equations for Noncommutative Algebras” starts off a little slow but really picks up about halfway through) provides an excellent background for the analysis of university budgeting, a realm of uncertainty and spooky action if ever there were one. I am not entirely sold on every jot and tittle of his methodology, but he makes a more persuasive case for his numbers than the university does. His findings? Under one set of assumptions, undergraduate students already are paying in tuition and fees 127 percent of the cost of educating them; under a different set, they are paying 191 percent of the cost of educating them. The university, on the other hand, estimates that tuition costs less than half the cost of undergraduate education.

In large part, this comes down to what counts as undergraduate instruction. Professor Schwartz points out: “The accounting habits of research universities obscure the fact that professors are hired to perform research as well as teaching and simply record the totality of their academic-year salaries as expenditures for ‘Instruction.’ The phrase ‘Departmental Research’ is used to cover that deceptive practice.” In the past two years, UCLA has paid more than $500,000 in speaking fees to two people — Bill and Hillary Clinton — and who knows by what avenues of fungibilty students and their families might have been soaked for that.