The vast majority of the British public do not want the number of international students in the UK to be cut.
Almost three quarters (73%) of people polled by Universities UK believe international student numbers should remain the same or be increased, having learned about the contribution they make to the economy.
Between 2014/15, 437,000 international students attended UK universities, generating almost £26 billion for the economy and creating more than 200,000 jobs.
The research follows a series of controversial government proposals to crack down on immigration, with overseas students currently included in net migration figures.
In October, Home Secretary Amber Rudd announced plans to make it more difficult for foreign students to study in the UK, including a new multi-tiered visa system.
Under this visa scheme, the rights of overseas students would be tied to the university they apply to, meaning those wanting to study at elite institutions such as Oxford and Cambridge would be more likely to be admitted to the UK.
But Universities UK’s survey of more than 4,000 people found that only 26% of Brits think of international students as immigrants.
Three-quarters also believe that these students should be able to work in the UK for a fixed time after graduation, rather than returning to their home countries straight away.
A further two-thirds (64%) said international students have a positive effect on local economies, while 61% reported a beneficial social impact.
Dame Julia Goodfellow, president of Universities UK, said it was clear that the British public see international students as “valuable, temporary visitors”.
“It is clear that the positive economic impact of international students extends to all corners of the UK, and not only to London or one or two large cities,” she said.
“The poll shows also the public recognises the valuable social and cultural impact international students have in regions across the country.
“But, while the UK government continues to count international students as long-term migrants in its target to reduce migration, there is a continued pressure to reduce their numbers, adding to the perception that they are not welcome here.”
Goodfellow, who is also vice chancellor of the University of Kent, said that US and Australian universities represent serious competition for UK universities.
“The most recent figures on international students in the UK showed a worrying decline in the number of new international enrolments over recent years,” she said.
“If the UK wants to remain a top destination for international students, we need a new immigration policy that encourages them to choose the UK.
“As the UK prepares to exit the EU, it is more important than ever that we project a welcoming message to talented people from across the world.”
The research follows a poll from the NUS which found that most students believe their degrees would suffer if the government slashed the number of international students at UK universities.