The period since the 1992 HE Act restructured our higher education system has been marked by growth, change and introspection. As universities have attracted more people and absorbed more public money, questions about the purpose and benefits of higher learning have become more pressing.

The aims of universities are usually stated as teaching, research and service to the community. Graduates are universities' most important output. So a simple way to judge the value of universities is to ask what is special about graduates. How does a university degree change people?

People have tried to answer this question in various ways. Patricia Lunneborg, for her engaging books OU Women and OU Men, interviewed a very diverse set of OU graduates and recorded their comments about how university study had changed them.

I was particularly impressed by one graduate, who remarked with a mixture of satisfaction and exasperation that after doing an OU degree he could no longer see fewer than six sides to any question. That's a good description of the skill of critical analysis that has always figured prominently in the purposes of academic study.

Other researchers have used questionnaires to ask large numbers of graduates about the effects of doing a degree. One such survey last year produced a rather surprising result. The responses, which came from graduates of all types of institution, were broadly similar except to one question. Asked how much university study had changed their lives, OU graduates reported much greater change than graduates from other universities.

At first this seemed to me an odd result because OU students tend to be older, and lead more settled lives, than conventional graduates. But I suppose that really explains the difference.

Young full-time students, who are in transition to adulthood, find it difficult to distinguish the impact of degree study from the general process of maturation. OU graduates can identify more readily the particular effects of study on their lives. The most common word they use, when they describe these changes to me at degree ceremonies, is confidence.

A better understanding of the world gives us greater confidence in everyday life and newly acquired competencies make us more confident at work.

Much of the debate about the outcomes of degree study now focuses on the notions of competencies and skills. In the UK the Dearing Report proposed that as well as cognitive skills, an understanding of methodologies and a capacity for critical analysis, graduates must acquire a set of key skills of general relevance. These skills relate to communication (oral and written); the application of number; information technology, working with others; improving one's own learning performance; and problem solving. There are many ways of grouping graduate competencies. In their book The Bases of Competence: Skills for Lifelong Learning and Employability, the Canadian authors Evers, Rush and Berdrow identify the essential graduate skills as managing self; communicating; managing people and tasks; and mobilising innovation and change. They find that students and graduates are most confident in managing themselves and communicating. They are much less sure of their skills for managing people and tasks and for mobilising innovation and change, although these skills are much sought after by employers.

Employers' perceptions of the skills of graduate staff in several English- speaking countries have been studied by Professor David Robertson of Liverpool John Moores University. He presented his conclusions, What employers really, really want, at the recent conference of the Society for Research in Higher Education. Employers are fairly happy with graduates' skills in communication, disciplinary knowledge, teamwork, IT, and in interpersonal relations and leadership.

What they find lacking are the complexity skills that graduates need to operate successfully in today's global environment. Progress is not linear, so people must be comfortable managing ambiguous situations where many events and trends are interlinked. This means living with provisionality and emergence - so you can make decisions even when you know that new developments such as electronic commerce may invalidate them.

Employers also note weaknesses in cross-cultural sensitivity. Other cultures and ethical frameworks must be seen as legitimate, not merely different. Complexity skills are particularly difficult to express in the precise language of competencies. But graduates who can see six sides to a question have already developed considerable competence in complexity.

Their next step is to learn to make choices and to operate confidently while maintaining a spirit of scepticism.