The survey, conducted by polling company ComRes on behalf of UUK and based on 4,043 responses, found that only 26 per cent viewed international students as immigrants, while 73 per cent said they would like the UK to either maintain or increase the number of international students it hosts, after discovering the economic contribution they make.
The findings come on the eve of a vote in the House of Commons that may decide whether international students should be taken out of migration targets. The House of Lords, the UK's upper chamber, voted 313 to 219 in favour of an amendment to the government's Higher Education and Research Bill that would take overseas students out of migration data, necessitating a further vote in the Commons.
Despite Prime Minister Theresa May's opposition to such a move, local media reports suggest a section of government MPs may be preparing to defy the party line and vote in favour of the amendment.
The UUK opinion poll also found that 64 per cent of respondents agreed international students have a positive impact on the local economies of the towns and cities in which they study; that 58 per cent believed this contribution helped to create jobs; and that 61 per cent think students have a valuable cultural and social benefit.
Dame Julia Goodfellow, President of Universities UK, said, "It is clear that the British public does not see international students as long-term migrants, but as valuable, temporary visitors. They come to the UK, study for a period, then the vast majority return home.
"It is clear that the positive economic impact of international students extends to all corners of the UK, not only to London or one or two large cities. The poll shows also the public recognises the valuable social and cultural impact international students have in regions across the country."
Furthermore, three quarters of those surveyed by ComRes said they believed international students should be entitled to work in the UK for a fixed period of time after they have graduated. The removal of post-study work rights for non-EU students in 2011 meant that non-EU students currently have four months to find a job before their visa will expire.
Dame Julia said that the current government policy of counting students as migrants added pressure to reduce student numbers as part of a drive to reach net migration of "tens of thousands", adding to a perception that students were not welcome. She cited declines in the UK in recent years, compared with growth in competitor countries such as Australia and the USA.
"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," she commented.
By Matthew Knott