Cyber gangs are targeting British universities to get hold of research into their technological advances, it has been reported.

The number of cybersecurity breaches at tertiary institutions has doubled in the past year as gangs exploit weak defences to steal sensitive information for foreign states.

Advances in medicine, engineering and even missile research are among the goals of the attacks which numbered 1,152 in 2016/17, the Times reported, citing data collected from a freedom of information (FOI) request.

Institutions affected have included Oxford University which had 515 cases of unauthorised access to accounts.

There were also 57 successful attacks at University College London and Queen Mary, University of London, blocked 38.75m attacks over the period, the Times reported.

While research into missiles and stealth fabric which disguise military vehicles are among the targets, Dave Palmer, the director of technology at cybersecurity company Darktrace said hackers also wanted weaponry information and personal data.

One institution said that it received up to 10,000 attempted attacks each month, with most traced to China, Russia and the Far East and ransomware software, used in the Wannacry attack that hit the NHS in May, a common method.

Carsten Maple, director of cyber- security research at Warwick University called for a tightening of cyber defences at universities.

"Universities drive forward a lot of the research and development in the UK. Intellectual property takes years of know-how and costs a lot. If someone can get that very quickly, that's good for them.

"Certainly somebody might attack a university and then provide that information to a nation state," he told the Times.

Louise Haigh, shadow Home Office minister, said: "There should be no compromise on cybersecurity but in difficult financial times many public sector organisations are being left with outdated operating systems."

A spokesman for the National Cyber Security Centre said: "We can't do this alone","Our Active Cyber Defence measures aim to automatically block, disrupt and neutralise malicious cyberactivity before it reaches users.

"These services are helping local authorities, and the NCSC is working on the ways that protection might be extended to universities."