A CURRENT focus on using Scottish universities as drivers of economic growth through projects such as spin-off companies is misplaced, academics have warned.

Researchers from St Andrews University found the sector was “limited” in its ability to commercialise research and concluded that vocational education in colleges would be a better place to focus efforts.

The report is controversial because the Scottish Government has made it a priority to align the work of universities with its wider economic strategy.

Creating more spin-off companies is seen as vital to the commercialisation of research conducted in Scottish universities.

The study, carried out by Dr Ross Brown, a lecturer in the university’s school of management and published in the journal Industry and Innovation, found pressure on universities to act as generators of high-tech start-ups had largely failed.

And Dr Brown described the view of universities as “some kind of innovation panacea” as “deeply flawed”.

He said: “While very much the received wisdom that universities are good for business and good at creating businesses, unfortunately the reality doesn’t quite match these expectations.

“As occurred in the past when inward investment was seen as a silver bullet for promoting economic development, university research commercialisation has been granted an equally exaggerated role in political and policy making circles. Universities are not quasi economic development agencies.”

While previously perceived as bodies which undertake teaching and research, Dr Brown said universities now had a "third mission" to help promote economic development.

However, his study found that, despite considerable expenditure committed towards research commercialisation in Scotland, the returns have been relatively minor in terms of numbers and growth of university start-ups and levels of licensing agreements with Scottish small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).

He added: “The reason for this lack of success owes to the fact that most academics make poor entrepreneurs and often view public sector funding as quasi form of research grant income.

“Additionally, despite the high level of focus on stimulating university-industry linkages, most SMEs do not view universities as suitable or appropriate partners when it comes to developing their innovative capabilities."

He concluded that support organisations such as Scottish Enterprise should work to connect SMEs to all sources of innovation and not just universities - with colleges also potentially playing a key role.

In 2013 figures showed the number of spin-out companies produced by Scottish universities’ staff and graduates was falling.

The statistics showed the total number of firms fell from 693 in 2010/11 to 656 in 2011/12. The total number of graduate start-up companies dropped by eight per cent from 414 to 379 over the same period, while new graduate companies fell from 169 to 161.