The YouGov poll, commissioned by Universities UK, found 63 per cent of people put the income received from overseas students at less than £5.3 billion – the government’s estimated figure for 2010.
A quarter of people put the value at below £500 million – about a tenth of the actual value.
More than a third of the 2,766 respondents (36 per cent) incorrectly believed international students were taking places allocated for home (UK and EU) students.
And seven out of 10 (71 per cent) believed international students stayed in the country long after they graduated.
In fact, only three per cent settled permanently in the UK five years after graduation.
Speaking ahead of a debate on student immigration in London today, Eric Thomas, president of Universities UK, said: “These findings make for worrying reading.
“I think it is a reflection of the extent of the misunderstanding about the positive contribution international students make to regional and national economies, and to society more widely.
“Universities are unequivocal in their support for efforts by the government to tackle any abuse of the student visa system.
“But this must not be allowed to obscure the reality of the positive contribution international students make to the UK.
“The government’s approach to student visas must be proportionate and workable, and should not be imposed at the expense of our international reputation and our economic growth.”
Professor Thomas, vice-chancellor of University of Bristol, added that the international student market “is a powerful engine for future growth – and one which the UK can legitimately claim to be a world leader, second only to the US.
“The government could help grow this area of the economy by removing university-sponsored students from net migration figures.
“They should do this because the majority of students simply come here, study, and then leave.”
The Universities UK debate in central London on the impact of government immigration policy on UK universities will feature business secretary Vince Cable, Keith Vaz MP, chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee, and Martin Ruhs, director of the Migration Observatory.