IT is another of those strange contradictions inherent in the Scottish economy that we have a distinct paucity of outward looking and ambitious companies (obviously with a good number of notable exceptions) alongside a relative abundance of outward-looking and ambitious universities.

Can the latter be expected to help solve the downside risk for our economy associated with the former? Can corporate Scotland learn and benefit from our internationalising HE sector?

This topic was the subject of a fascinating discussion at the Royal Society of Edinburgh last week, organised by the RSE and the David Hume Institute, one of a series of discussions around Scottish HE established when I was director of the DHI.

The intention is that the findings from the full series should feed into consideration of the manifestos being prepared next year for the 2016 Holyrood election. A number of issues emerged at last week's discussion which merit consideration.

I have something of a bee in my bonnet regarding this topic of internationalisation.

But it is truly remarkable that Scotland at present has such a relatively narrow base of corporate exporters, with the direction of trade still excessively focused on Western Europe and the US.

Exports to the emerging and fast growing economies remain very much in the minority.

Why, given a long-term history of Scottish success in exporting people, ideas and products around the world, does Scotland now appear somewhat insular in comparison to other highly successful small economies?

Whatever happens on the devolution front, Scotland's future economic success will depend upon more innovation, more investment and more ambition in selling high value products across the globe.

Our successful, and increasingly globally involved and globally competitive, universities can make a contribution in each of these arenas.

The desire to enhance outward-looking business must be part of the new First Minister's economic plans for 'One Scotland'; and lies behind the Smith Commission proposal to devolve responsibility for air passenger taxation.

I would argue, having listened to the debate at the RSE, that making use of the HE sector's success in internationalisation should be seen as at least as important, in achieving similar momentum for corporate Scotland, as a tax cut here or a new Scottish overseas office there.

HE internationalisation comes, broadly, in two forms.

First, we have the large numbers of foreign students studying at our universities.

Secondly, these institutions have a growing number of overseas campuses, as well as large numbers of students working towards degree courses accredited by our universities at other overseas institutions or via distance learning.

The scale and breadth of the reach is remarkable.

So far as foreign students studying here are concerned, it is sad that the "fresh talent" initiative - which permitted some graduates to stay on and add value in Scottish businesses - no longer applies.

Certainly universities gain both financially and in the breadth of their offer for all students - domestic and international - from the presence of significant numbers of students from diverse home locations. But Scottish business needs more and more of these talented, dynamic and entrepreneurial young people in order to innovate and evolve.

Making use in corporate Scotland of more of our graduates and postgraduates from abroad should also mean boosting aspirations to seek new markets across the globe.

We talk about more immigration, but should first make best use of those who already come here and thrive at their Scottish centres of learning and research.

Turning to "transnational" students - those studying abroad with differing links to Scottish universities - the first point to note is that this is a rapidly growing element of activity for several of our universities. We should treat their alumni as a real resource for Scotland.

They should be seen as ambassadors, global friends of Scotland, but also a resource to be used by Scottish business to help them identify talent, partners and markets in a whole variety of countries.

The overseas campuses of our universities can themselves be of huge value for Scottish business.

They can be an entry point for businesses, a starting point in the journey to understand markets and how best to engage.

Further, they should be a source of talent and partners for research activity to help corporate Scotland towards the top of the value chain in their new markets.

Others have seen the way forward. A few months back, Connected Scotland was established, involving the universities and a number of other key institutions.

My emphasis, however, is on the potential benefits to our economy and the overall welfare of Scotland from a major focus on business-HE links, both regarding overseas students here in Scotland and the burgeoning global activities of HE institutions.

I understand that the universities are autonomous charitable entities which must work towards their stated, academia-related, objectives.

Nevertheless there seems no reason why work to the benefit of corporate Scotland and hence the economic welfare of all in Scotland cannot be wholly consistent with these objectives.

Corporate Scotland needs to dramatically enhance the extent and breadth of its overseas reach.

We need many more companies competing in and exporting to a wide range of overseas economies.

Working closely with our universities can make a major contribution to this crucial objective.

A constructive combination of SDI and the external activities of these universities could be remarkably effective.