William Archer, director of i-Graduate, said results from a poll of 150,000 international students suggested the importance of interaction via Facebook, Twitter and YouTube was overestimated by universities.
The i-Graduate survey, which polled students at about 1,200 global higher education institutions this year, also found only 6 per cent of students were persuaded to choose their institution by information from staff at university fairs.
“If you think about how much time and money is spent on these fairs, you have to question that investment by universities,” Mr Archer told delegates at the European Association for International Education’s annual conference in Copenhagen this week.
Regarding the focus among many higher education institutions on social media, he added: “Students are saying it is not how we choose our university.”
The research found that 45 per cent of students said recommendations by friends were the most important factor when choosing, followed by the institution’s website (41 per cent).
Thirty-two per cent of respondents said parents were an important factor, 22 per cent said they were swayed by the prospectus, 17 per cent by meeting current students, 16 per cent by teachers’ guidance and ranking placements and 11 per cent by a visit to the institution.
The survey also found that 88.6 per cent of students felt meeting staff was of key importance when arriving at a foreign university, while 74.2 per cent said the official welcome was important.
Speedy access to the internet was also a major factor for 78 per cent of students.
“If you cannot get access to the internet for a whole hour after you arrive, you are not generally feeling very happy”, Mr Archer added.
Jess Winters, from the University of Groningen’s international office, said social media had limited use in recruitment, but was useful for communicating with international students when they arrive.
It was also useful in managing expectations, she said, and in the case of Groningen had helped to address frequent complaints about housing and catering on campus.
“It is better for [foreign students] to know about [these problems] before they arrive. Why not tell them straight away as they will find out eventually,” she said.
• For full coverage of the European Association for International Education’s annual conference, see next Thursday’s Times Higher Education.