Word of mouth rather than formal information on the web has the biggest influence on international students coming to the UK, a study has found.
University websites were rated second to friends in a survey of factors affecting overseas students' choice of university.
Will Archer, director of the consultants i-graduate, which carried out the research, said: "In the recruitment process, it is personal recommendations that matter more than ever. There are few students who will embark across time zones without getting a personal recommendation from someone."
Yet, easy access to the internet is valued more than anything else by international students when they are at university.
Excellent internet facilities helped Southampton University achieve top ratings out of 12 institutions taking part in the pilot stage of research to discover what international students think about studying in the UK.
The first phase of the International Student Barometer study found that good internet access mattered most to 7,300 international students after their first year in Britain.
Only four academic-related elements fell in the top ten out of 45 factors identified as influencing the opinions of international students. After internet access, international students most valued good teaching, library facilities and academic content on courses. But good technology and "feeling safe and secure" were rated above subject expertise.
The study is to be conducted in three phases: gauging international students' first impressions; their feelings mid-way through their course; and prior to completion. It comes amid mounting concerns over increasing competition in the lucrative overseas student market.
Overall, the first phase found high satisfaction levels. Nearly three quarters of students surveyed said they would recommend their university to others, while almost a fifth were neither encouraging nor discouraging. The remaining 7 per cent gave their university a black mark.
But a report on the findings warns that responses revealed high levels of dissatisfaction in certain areas. Nearly half of students surveyed said they were dissatisfied with the cost of accommodation and low levels of financial support through bursaries, with nearly 40 per cent complaining about scant opportunities to earn money.
There were general concerns about employment, with nearly half criticising lack of opportunities for work experience and the university careers service.