The UK's international higher education strategy is uncoordinated, a report commissioned by the think-tank Million+ has found.
The study, Universities and International Higher Education Partnerships, describes a "lack of coherence" between government departments, with "conflict between the policies of one Whitehall department and another".
It says the British Council's role and international agenda "are not always transparent or well-aligned with other key government departments" and that the council "can be in competition with institutions" over the delivery of educational services.
Countries such as Australia, which has a single agency for all international educational activity, and Germany follow a more "co-ordinated and strategic" approach to their international higher education policies, it argues.
The study, by Kingston University, also identifies a lack of information and analysis of UK universities' overseas teaching, research and knowledge-transfer links.
Not all agencies and departments are sharing information, and interviews revealed a lack of awareness at agency and governmental levels about the international activities of Million+ institutions. This is despite Million+ universities having partnerships in more than 70 countries and an estimated 50,000 students studying with them abroad.
The authors recommend setting up a database profiling UK universities' international activities.
They also warn that rhetoric about the financial benefits of recruiting international students could drive behaviour that harms the sector's reputation overseas.
The perception of some UK student recruitment practices abroad is "far from positive" in some countries, it argues. For example, UK universities in Sri Lanka have driven up domestic course fees.
The study acknowledges that, in the late 1980s and 1990s, some overseas teaching activities were rightly branded "risky" in quality terms. However, universities have since strengthened their quality assurance procedures, the report says.